CBS has announced a new reality show, The Activist, and as someone who works in the nonprofit field (when I’m not writing about true crime and dramedies), I can state without seeing a single episode that it’s at terrible idea. And I’m not usually that person. For the most part, even when something doesn’t appeal to me, I try to recognize that it will or does appeal to others and respect that as much as possible. Twilight, for example. It’s not my thing but it is for many other people, and I wish them the joy of it. But not this. The Activist is a terrible idea that will likely harm countless nonprofit organizations currently engaging in activist work related to health, education, and the environment – if not the reputation of activism and – by extension – the nonprofit organizations that perform similar activism work (or even the nonprofit sector as a whole). I’m sure co-hosts Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough have the best of intentions and mean well. However, everyone involved in green lighting the series should feel bad for doing what will likely end up being a bad thing.
Why It’s a Bad Idea
Honestly, the very concept of this show is so bad, it would take more than one article to delve into it. But let’s start here: This “reality” show is unlikely to do much good in the long-term, and it will likely damage the reputation of activism in general and, by extension, the nonprofit sector (which already suffers from harmful misconceptions).
Vu Le of Nonprofitaf, a popular blog within the nonprofit community, coined the term the “Nonprofit Hunger Games.” Basically, it’s the idea that nonprofits doing incredibly important work are pitted against each other in a desperate struggle to obtain a greater share of finite resources. This is often due, he argues, to outdated funding practices. And, since the majority of traditional funders are white, this means established “best practices” are white-centric. An accusation reality shows have shared.
Reading the synopsis of The Activist makes one wonder if a CBS exec saw the term “Nonprofit Hunger Games” on Twitter and ran with the idea, completely missing the point. The series is geared toward literally competing activists against each other for the same resources. As a “reality show,” there will undoubtedly be a push to make the pitches (and everything else about the process) “sexy” and “dramatic” and “glamorous.”
Let’s be real, here. Reality shows are in business to make money. Not to actually enact real change. The Activist will no doubt pay lip service to the latter. However, it will naturally be the former that will be the driving focus of the show. And what’s most needed or what’s most necessary is not always what’s sexiest, most glamorous, or what makes for the most dramatic of television.
Also, given the need for trumped up drama to keep things “interesting,” when has reality tv ever shone a positive light on anything, ever?
More Harm Than Good
But won’t it at least be a benefit to the activists to get more attention to their causes? In the long term, probably not. Realistically, I think it’s unlikely that there are too many causes out there that suffer from the fact that not enough people are aware that the problem exists. I’m not saying it’s impossible. But the problem climate change activists face, for example, isn’t that people haven’t heard about climate change. It’s that too many people either don’t care or don’t believe in it. And a “reality show” where a climate change activist fights for scraps of attention and funding isn’t going to change their minds.
There’s also the issue that participating in this kind of show is going to require a certain amount of time and resources from competing activists. They have to be able to take the time from their lives and the activism work they do to participate. Which means that those activists who actually could benefit the most from increased exposure may be the last people who would be able to compete on this type of show.
Also, there’s just something a little icky about ejecting activists and causes that might be incredibly necessary and doing very important work because they’re not “sexy” enough to garner the most online engagement, social metrics, or positive input from the hosts. “Sorry, Contestant 1. We know learning loss created by distance learning models necessitated by COVID-19 exacerbated historical inequities in underserved and BIPOC communities. But it’s just not a sexy enough problem to trend on Twitter, so…see ya!”
And, in the end, even the “benefit” that the show might do – increasing funding for the winning activists – may cause more harm than good to their causes. Yes, there may be a spike in funding as the viewing audience gets excited about a shiny new cause. But once the show is over and the media exposure dries up, so too will the donations. People will move on or forget as season one’s competitors are replaced by season two’s. Or, worse still, they’ll stop donating because they assume that the job has been done. And not just to the specific winning activist, but potentially to other activists and nonprofits doing similar work. The cause has been served. We’ve solved climate change in five weeks, everybody! Job well done!
There’s also the possible unfortunate side effect of eventually penalizing activists who don’t or can’t engage in the glitzier, celebrity side of activism. Similar to the way that shows like CSI may have hurt the legal field by leading to unrealistic expectations, so too might audiences assume that a cause needs to be “sexy” in order to be worthwhile. Or that activists who can’t, won’t, or don’t go on Hunger Games-style reality tv shows aren’t as worthy of support.
In the end, there are unquestionably many causes that need and deserve support. But “reality shows” like The Activist aren’t just unlikely to result in any actual benefit in the long-term. They may cause actual harm to causes that need help the most.
The Activist will premiere as a mid-season replacement on CBS.