Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

David Grazian


Audiences, critics, and academics have raised significant moral concerns about reality television. The genre is commonly criticized for being exploitative, harmful, and fake. By extension, reality TV workers are morally tainted, seen as dirty workers of questionable character. This dissertation describes the sources of moral taint in reality television production and how production workers dispel this taint—making their work acceptable and even glorious to themselves and others—through everyday micro-level interaction. The data for this study comes from approximately 2 years of ethnographic observation at 2 reality TV production companies, attendance at 2 reality TV industry conferences, and interviews with 83 respondents, including reality TV production workers, television network executives, and people who auditioned to be on reality shows. Findings focus on the development process, during which production companies generate ideas for new television shows and pitch those ideas to television networks. First, I describe the development process and three significant moral dilemmas that workers face at this initial stage of production: creating negative representations (e.g. stereotypes), falsifying reality, and exploiting workers. Second, I discuss how even though some reality TV workers aspire to create “authentic” television and portray cast in a dignified manner, commercial demands sometimes pressure them into compromising their values. I find that workers justify making such creative compromises by distancing themselves from their actions or tweaking their standards of quality in their everyday shop floor talk. Third, I describe the significant creative contributions unpaid interns made at one production company and propose that supervisors dispel the moral taint of exploitation by framing their relationships with unpaid interns in terms of mentorship and friendship. Finally, I describe how people who audition for reality shows in development are concerned about workers’ professional legitimacy and moral character, and how workers craft their credentials and manage their affective styles of self presentation to convince prospective cast of their good reputation. I discuss implications of these findings for research on work and labor in cultural industries and for understanding stigmatized workers’ selves and identities in any occupation.