Date of Award

Spring 5-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communication and Journalism



Committee Chair

Kim LeDuff

Committee Chair Department

Mass Communication and Journalism

Committee Member 2

Christopher Campbell

Committee Member 2 Department

Mass Communication and Journalism

Committee Member 3

Fei Xue

Committee Member 3 Department

Mass Communication and Journalism

Committee Member 4

David R. Davies

Committee Member 4 Department

Mass Communication and Journalism

Committee Member 5

Cheryl Jenkins

Committee Member 5 Department

Mass Communication and Journalism


A new genre of documentary and reality program has appeared on cable television in recent years. Suddenly, little people, conjoined twins, the morbidly obese, Treeman and Mermaid Girl are the new stars of cable. This latest genre features people with medical conditions once exhibited in the turn of the century freak shows.

The goal of this dissertation is to argue that documentary programming on cable is becoming a modern version of the P.T. Barnum-style freak shows. The analysis uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to examine representations of race, culture and disability. The dissertation also discusses the history of the freak show, types of people exhibited, presentation methods used and how these elements are reflected in today’s television programs. The study population includes 40 one-hour documentaries aired during the July 2009 sweeps period on The Learning Channel, Discovery Health Channel and The Science Channel.

A content analysis codes individual subjects’ race, culture and disability status. The analysis also codes the documentaries for themes/frames present, disability stereotypes and freak show style. A critical analysis utilizes semiotics to uncover the dominant, negotiated and oppositional messages constructed through the composition and editing of the programs.

Hegemony was the foundation of the freak show. The results of the analysis reveal that the documentaries frame the stories from a hegemonic perspective by reinforcing stereotypes of race, culture and disability while also reflecting the exhibition techniques of the freak show. These results, the people featured and the sheer number of programs aired, supports the argument that these programs have created a modern day freak show.