As CBS' The Activist Backlash Grows, Julianne Hough Explains Why She's Stepping Down As Host

julianne hough harper's bazaar food interview youtube screenshot

CBS started generating buzz almost immediately for its upcoming competition series The Activist, although not for the same positive reasons as NCIS: Hawai'i or CSI: Vegas. The premise of the show centers on activists from around the world competing for the top opportunity to secure funding and increase awareness for their cause, with Dancing with the Stars and America's Got Talent veteran Julianne Hough on board as one of the hosts. Now, just days after The Activist was announced, Hough has stepped down amidst backlash.

Julianne Hough was originally announced as co-hosting The Activist along with Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Usher. At the time of writing, neither of the other two hosts has stepped down from the show, but Hough posted a lengthy statement on social media that revealed her experience of the backlash, explained her reasons for leaving, and established the original reason for which she signed on as a celebrity host. On Instagram, Hough started out by thanking fans for their feedback, and saying:

After the press release announcing The Activist, I heard you say that the show was performative, promoted pseudo-activism over real activism, felt tone-deaf, like Black Mirror, The Hunger Games, and that the hosts weren't qualified to assess activism because we are celebrities and not activists. I heard you say that there was hypocrisy in the show because at the root of activism is a fight against capitalism and the trauma that it causes so many people and that the show itself felt like a shiny capitalistic endeavor. I also heard you say that trying to value one cause over another felt like the Oppression Olympics and totally missed and disrespected the many activists who have been killed, assaulted, and faced various abuses fighting for their causes. And because of all this, there is a feeling of insult, dehumanization, insensitivity and hurt that is being rightfully felt. I do not claim to be an activist and wholeheartedly agree that the judging aspect of the show missed the mark and furthermore, that I am not qualified to act as a judge.

The concept of a TV show pitting activists against each other in a competition to win awareness for their cause did indeed result in plenty of people hitting social media to make comparisons between it and dystopian realities that are (supposed to be, anyway) fictional, like Black Mirror and The Hunger Games. The press release did describe it as an "unprecedented series," which may be the only thing about it that detractors and supporters alike can agree on!

The original announcement for the show revealed that it would feature six activists from around the world working for meaningful change in one of three causes: health, education, and environment. Over five weeks, the reality series would put the contestants in missions, media stunts, community events, and digital campaigns to try and gain online awareness, with success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and input from the the hosts, then comprised of Julianne Hough, Usher, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

And honestly, when looking at it from a certain point of view, I'd say that The Activist does feel kind of dystopian. The goal of the activists in the show is meant to be to advance to the G20 summit in Italy to pursue the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with world leaders for awareness and potentially securing funding, with a finale that would feature a musical performance. Julianne Hough continued in her post to explain why she signed on in the first place:

It feels important for me to share that the original reason I signed on to this show was because I was really excited to be a part of something that highlights, and is centered around sharing activists' work on a larger platform. In doing so, I felt it would help educate, mobilize, and inspire people around the world to get involved in activism because many worthy causes need attention, funding, and most importantly, the power to effect real change. I do not have all the answers yet. I've shared your concerns as well as my own with the powers that be, who I believe have listened. I have faith and confidence in the beautiful people that I've worked with will make the right choice and do the right thing moving forward. Not just for the show, but for the greater good.

Julianne Hough went on to admit that she understands that no answer she gave could make everybody happy, but she's still listening and "this is a conversation." In the same post, she also addressed the blackface controversy that has arisen regarding an occasion in 2013, referring to it as a "poor choice" based on her "own white privilege and white body bias." Check out the full post for yourself:

A photo posted by on

Julianne Hough isn't the only celebrity whose past use of blackface resurfaced in recent years, nor is she the first to make an apology. Hopefully the controversy means that Hough will alter her actions moving forward at be more aware of what they mean for the larger world and people in it. At this point, all signs point toward The Activist moving forward, although it should be interesting to see if Hough's conversations with "the powers that be" result in any changes to the original plans for the series.

For now, The Activist is scheduled to premiere on Friday, October 22 on CBS. How the show does or does not proceed following Julianne Hough's departure and public comments remains to be seen, but the fall TV lineup is packed with options on CBS and the other networks no matter what.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. Resident of One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and Northeast Ohio. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).