Casting Shirley Partridge: The Reality TV Audience as Talent Scout

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Reality television is developing a new force on the creative side of television production as the TV audience joins television executives in the creation of entertainment programming. Bridges between entertainment and audience have always been fundamental to show business, and reality TV is taking audience participation to new heights. The reality TV watcher, sitting at home and unencumbered by the immediate proximity of global corporate economics and network politics, is invited to observe auditions and act as talent scout in the development of their own entertainment. Is the TV audience, once conceived of as passive consumer of entertainment and advertising, becoming more active and enfranchised in the actual production of programming?

Reality TV has already broken down the distance between audience and performer. Reality TV players (“player” here taken to mean both game player and stage performer) are different from movie and TV stars. John Ellis used a useful distinction to describe the appeal of the movie star: s/he is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Stars are like us and yet they are different from us. We can recognize ourselves in the star and the characters the star plays, yet we also appreciate their exceptional qualities. The reality TV player is familiar, more ordinary than extraordinary. Trista & Ryan and Boston Rob & Amber may be fairy-tale romances, but they are also as familiar as the initials of high school sweethearts spray painted on a town’s water tower.

Reality TV players may be ordinary and familiar people, but reality game shows cast personalities in the hope that the mix will engender drama and interest. Reality casting can generate critique of social categories and assumptions. Survivor‘s staff psychologist has identified social types (one type for each of the players on a Survivor season) and described the anticipated dramatic outcomes of these types. While the reality player may be cast as a social type, s/he is not simply a fixed and predictable stereotype. Some reality players come to their games with an understanding of how they embody social types. In the confessionals, these players explain how erroneous assumptions about type can work in their favor in the game. “I may seem weak, but I’m strong and smart. The others will underestimate this good ol’ boy, this petite young woman.” Rather than confirming types, these players ask the audience to recognize the types that they embody and to disengage preconceptions about stereotypes.

In its striving for some mix of racial/ethnic/sexual/gender diversity, reality casting can reveal fundamental barriers that reverberate through US life, culture and opportunity. On The Apprentice, African American women players (Omarosa in the first season and Stacey J in the second) seem to not fit comfortably in the show’s business culture (these women seem to provide too much drama). Romance reality shows may occasionally explore the ordinariness of men players (such as Average Joe), but women players seem to be subject to more restricted notions of feminine attractiveness.

In reality shows that are cast by agents, the selection process has become legendary. Nationwide, thousands of applicants (sometimes hundreds of thousands) are winnowed down to numbers that can be managed by the program’s production team. The final mix of reality TV players are the dramatis personae, characters and personalities that are designed for the show just as writers and producers design characters for sitcoms and episodic dramas. Reality show DVDs and the reunion episodes present clips from the audition tapes of the finalists and take us “behind the scenes” of casting, for a glimpse of the performances that won the player the coveted role as castaway.

In reality talent shows, professional casting judgment is made more open and visible. These shows may play a didactic role in the circulation of popular knowledge about entertainment. Whether opinion is rendered caustically or gently, professional judges share their views with the TV watcher. The judges “teach” as they ensure that players have a requisite level of expertise and qualities for the entertainment genre. In America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and a panel of fashion industry experts assess performance and explain the expectations for a “top model.” ANTM showcases the hard work (get up early, be ready, don’t be a diva) and skills (posing, make-up) as well as the body type that undergird this glamorous profession. There is no popular vote because what matters to ANTM is the judgment of the professionals. “Top models” are extraordinary, not ordinary.

Some reality talent shows cast the TV audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent, calling on the audience’s experiential history with entertainment (sitcom, pop music, country music). These shows invite TV viewers to understand and to join in the “occupational ideologies” of the creative team, to become aware of the judgments that A&R or casting directors or talent agents might bring to casting decisions. American Idol and Nashville Star are competitions that end in the promise of a chance for a show business career, entry into an arena that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of the hopefuls. These shows have an interchange between a panel of entertainment professionals who make a public assessment of performance and the popular vote. The audience voters may be expressing their desires for what they would like to see in entertainment or maybe they are culture jamming, subverting entertainment by voting for the least likely entertainer or the underdog. American Idol and Nashville Star are talent shows, looking for pop singers.

In Search of the Partridge Family takes it up a notch, inviting “America” to help cast the Partridge Family for a new series on VH-1. Three roles in the sitcom (two child actors and an established character actor to play the lynchpin role of the family’s manager) were cast by professionals. The TV audience participates in casting performers who can sing pop songs, act in a sitcom, and re-inhabit the roles of four Partridges: Shirley, Keith, Laurie and Danny. For each one of these, auditions in four cities (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, New York) generated eight hopefuls and a televised competition that combines professional judges and popular votes. The four show business judges are a record producer, a casting director, a music industry executive and an executive producer of In Search of the Partridge Family. Unlike American Idol and Nashville Star, the judges of In Search of the Partridge Family do not share their assessments with the TV audience. Nonetheless, In Search of the Partridge Family makes visible some of the processes that go into the production of entertainment television.

A week of rehearsals, singing and acting lessons, wardrobe and hair is presented in montage. Called “Boot Camp,” this process starts the visual transformation of the players from ordinary to extraordinary. However, despite their more polished performances, trendier haircuts and stage clothes, the players remain on the ordinary side of the continuum. The judges eliminate 3 of the 8. After a singing competition, the judges eliminate two more. Now, the field effectively narrowed to three very similar possibilities for the Partridge family character, the TV audience is invited to participate. The last three players perform a scene taken literally from the 1970s show. They stand before a green screen, interacting with the 1970s characters. In a secret combination of TV audience votes and judges’ opinions, two finalists are selected. In “The Battle of the Finalists,” the TV watchers make the final selection, voting by phone or Internet.

As the field of eight is narrowed to two, the TV audience gets to know the players as familiar and ordinary people. In “The Battle of the Shirley Partridges” episode of In Search of the Partridge Family, the players introduced themselves with sound bites that explained how their personal attributes match those of Shirley Partridge: I’m a mom; I used to be a rock singer and now I’m a mom; I’m organized; I can learn to drive a bus. The players present the sense that being myself is the same as being the character. Their personal attributes will allow them to deliver this character. In the method acting of reality TV, you don’t have to reach into yourself for an experience or an emotion that helps you understand and deliver the character. You are the character and the character is you, in your ordinariness. Yet, the bottom line will be the need that profitable entertainment has for the extraordinary–when the ordinary and likeable person has to deliver the character through photogenie and sustained performance.

The women vying for the role of Shirley are very different from Shirley Jones, the actress who played the character on TV in the 1970s. Jones was an experienced performer with the attributes of the perky TV sitcom mom. She starred in musicals (Oklahoma 1955 and Carousel 1956) and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960). After working on stage and in film, television and nightclubs, Jones and stepson David Cassidy formed the nucleus of The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-1974). The reality show amateurs offer themselves not as trained and experienced performers, but as closer and truer embodiments of Shirley Partridge. The contestants situate their performances in “being” more than in “performing.” The Shirley Partridge of the 1970s might have been an extraordinary TV mom, one who formed a touring pop band with her kids. In today’s reality talent show, Shirley Partridge is a character who connects with real moms. Or perhaps, over three decades, moms of the 21st century have become more like Shirley Partridge.

America’s Next Top Model/UPN
Reality Television forum
Reality TV information
Race, class, and gender in media
The Partridge Family

Please feel free to comment.


  • So, are viewers of reality television really being enfranchised by these “voting” shows such as In Search of the New Partridge Family, American Idol and the like? One might argue that the images onscreen remain highly shaped and mediated, and these shows provide only the illusion of audience agency (and tie up the phone lines…). On the other hand, can we see this as a step towards the “democratization” of the airwaves? Typically, whatever power audiences have to determine what appears onscreen rests securely in the hands of the coveted demographic groups, who wield this influence over programming simply by virtue of “being”–and buying. On these voting shows, however, anyone can vote, every vote counts (except maybe in Florida), and viewers are rewarded more for their active participation than passive viewing. In the end, though, I guess we still only get to choose between a very few pre-selected, fame and power-hungry candidates. Er, reality television hopefuls…

  • In response to the comment above, I believe that a valid argument could be constructed on both sides of the issue. I would tend to lean to the side that says the images are put together disguised as character agency. After all, the bottom line is still money making, and I do not believe that reality TV producers would risk having the audience decide a show’s outcome if they could avoid it. In the circle of TV watchers I know, it seems that reality shows that appear to have more audience agency are more popular. For example, with American Idol, viewers feel like they are investing themselves to the show by voting each week. When comparing American Idol to Fear Factor, Fear Factor has much less audience agency. The audience does not feel the need to invest themselves as much. I believe the appearance of audience agency can be very profitable due to increased popularity.

  • Internet!

    Kristen’s comment about how the viewers of “voting” reality shows only get to choose from a select few candidates got me thinking about how producers could use the internet to widen the scope of a viewer-selected contestant search. Viewers could go to the show’s website and choose from hundreds of audition clips. My guess is that they would come up with finalists fairly similar to the ones selected by producers, but still, it would at least allow for greater initial choice. Another example of the democratizing potential the internet provides for content could be a website on which people can vote on short films they like best; the finalists get an opportunity to produce a show on TV (something like: ). Perhaps the internet could serve as a “feeder system” for small cable networks.

  • In response to the article above, I believe that Reality TV has found a great viewer tactic in combining shows that will get the highest audience response. The combination of audience participation, with the audience being able to relate to the “ordinary person,” and the audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent helps bring the viewers that today’s reality TV shows thrive on. The “voting” initiative is most definitely a very smart tactic used to bring the audience back to see who will survive until the end of the show. I totally agree with the article, and with a number of the comments made about the article. Audience agency is a major factor in contributing to the amount of viewers to these reality TV series, and I do agree that if producers add internet voting to the preliminaries, then the audience participate would reach an all new height.

  • While it may be true that Reality TV audience play a small role in developing a reality show and deciding who should win or continue in a particular program, I still feel that the industry plays an even greater role in selecting the person or persons they believe would better suit the image that they wish to portray. For Example, in season two of American Idol Ruben Studdard may have won the popular vote, but it was Clay Aiken who seemed to receive more press coverage. Even though Fantasia is our new American Idol, she still has not received as much coverage as Kelly Clarkson.

  • The immediate response I have after reading this article is a follow up question regarding the very last paragraph and more questions raised about reality TV. As Haralovich talked about how back in the 70’s the role of Shirley Partridge was rather a performance by an outstanding actress than as for now the reality show Shirley Partridge’s character is somewhat of an embodiment of the contestants. Is the writer saying that 21st century moms choose to have multiple roles as career women, mothers, and educators like the character or is it that over the past three decades women’s role in society has shifted from domestic to all-around, and are expected to be able to take on the multiple roles as career women, mother, wives, and educators, and if the latter was the case, does the happy go lucky Partridge mom with the picture perfect family band with her children really bare any resemblance to the “reality” of today’s society? Do modern family issues and problems always end with songs and smiles? How real is real? What is “TV real”, and how much of realism in reality TV can TV audiences handle? Is reality TV just another illusion the TV executives put on for audiences to feel connected? Is reality TV “drama” being made “real” by the producers just to attract viewers? After all, viewers feel like they are involved with the process of reality TV, but in the world of TV networks when every single move is carefully planned out by market researchers, are they just feeding the viewers what they want? Is reality TV another desperate attempt from the networks to claim originality? Perhaps it all comes down to where the money market is.

  • New, Cheap Talent

    It is already a well-established fact that reality TV is cheap to make. Why not find cheap talent as well? After all, in sitcoms and dramas, represented talent fetch a high price regardless of whether they are Jennifer Anniston or a new face. SAG actors,especially, take top dollar. An agent defends your rights on sets and keeps you out of compromising positions and often manages your public image. I would love to know how many people on these talent-search shows have ever been professionally represented or even know they need to be in order to work in their prospective industries. I look at studios and see them in prime position to take advantage of people who may not know the industry structure well enough or through the show, they are getting their first (and maybe only) taste.

  • Audience response

    While it is true that audience participation can be limited by certain preliminary restrictions, I believe it is for the best. Experts choose the candidates with the best potential: most likely to produce drama in the case The Real World; most likely to be successful in American Idol. This simply is the effect of what Haralovich was stating that producers cast certain social types and demographics that best suit their show (there is always at least one homosexual and one African American on the Real World). Audience participation does allow viewers to become involved in the creation of the content, although it is usually a structured, already pre-determined (or heavily favored) outcome they are voting on. The bottom line is that audience participation produces return viewers and increases ratings.

  • my reality TV spiel

    > When I think of reality TV I am actually reminded of> the movie “8 Mile” because I think of how Eminem was> not that great of an actor, but he basically played> the role of himself, it was basically his life story.> The characters in reality TV shows are put into roles> that fit their personalities. These people usually> have no acting background, but audiences are intrigued> because these people are being themselves and in a way> “playing the role they were born to play.” That is> what adds salt to these shows, that is why they are> not boring and -to a certain extent- hard to watch.> Another thing about reality TV shows is that they are> usually competitive. As humans most of us are> competitive by nature and will do whatever it takes to> win. On these shows people will do whatever it takes> to win them and as far as this relates to audience> interaction, people will do whatever it takes to get> the audience to like them. This makes them more active> and entertaining to watch. Reality TV also does a> great job of making the audience feel included. I> think of “Dream job” on ESPN which made the audience> feel just as important as the experts. In its first> two seasons this show was a competition to find the> next anchor on ESPN’s “Sportscenter.” The show had an> expert judging panel that consisted of ESPN> journalists, it’s VP of Personnel, and a professional> athlete. Each of these judges had one vote every week> for who was getting voted off of the show, but the> audience had two votes every week up until the last> show, where they had total control over who was kicked> off and who won. This is an important aspect of> reality TV because it is a great way to keep the> audience involved and let the audience decide who they> want to see. That is why I feel American Idol does so> well. I also feel that an audience vote is an easy way> to gauge what kind of audience a show has. People are> most likely to vote on the side of people that they> identify with. People of their same race, sex, age> group, attitude, etc. For a network this is valuable> because it can help you figure out what type of> programs you want to run around your reality show. I> personally do not watch much reality TV but I do> appreciate its concept and its purposes.

  • Je ne connaissais pas du tout ce projet. j’ajoute votre blog à mes favoris. Bonne journée

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