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'Duck Dynasty' fracas shows gap between producers and audience

It was the call of the wild. A&E's Duck Dynasty was the unlikely TV megahit no one understood.

From left, Phil Robertson, Jase Robertson, Si Robertson and Willie Robertson from the A&E series, "Duck Dynasty." The A&E channel says "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson is off the show indefinitely after condemning gays as sinners in a magazine interview. (AP Photo/A&E, Zach Dilgard)
From left, Phil Robertson, Jase Robertson, Si Robertson and Willie Robertson from the A&E series, "Duck Dynasty." The A&E channel says "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson is off the show indefinitely after condemning gays as sinners in a magazine interview. (AP Photo/A&E, Zach Dilgard)Read more

It was the call of the wild.

A&E's Duck Dynasty was the unlikely TV megahit no one understood.

No one understood how popular it would become, setting records for nonfiction cable shows and becoming the No. 1 nonfiction show on cable, No. 2 overall (to AMC's The Walking Dead).

No one understood how closely audiences would identify with the Robertson family of West Monroe, La., and their conservative Christian values.

And no one, evidently, saw the Duck Dynasty disaster coming.

Phil Robertson, Duck's father figure, founder of the family duck-call business, self-made millionaire and TV star, said something he believed in, and now A&E has two headaches in one. It has suspended Robertson for comments many see as antigay. And now, it faces a second outcry - from people who object to Robertson's suspension and see it as a slap at their values.

 The Robertsons, who made their fortune inventing, manufacturing, and selling a line of duck calls and other hunting gear, were in the spotlight this week, when patriarch Phil told GQ he believed homosexuality to be a sin. Asked to define sinfulness, he told the magazine, "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman."

Expressing shock and disappointment, A&E on Wednesday decided to suspend Phil from the show for an indefinite period. Phil's large, boisterous, but unified extended family has stuck by him, telling A&E it won't do the show without him. Phil's views are shared by millions of Christians, but have ruffled quite a few feathers as well.

A&E made a tactical mistake when it commissioned Duck Dynasty in the first place, said Ronald Hill, who teaches marketing and business law at Villanova University. "I think A&E expected people would watch the show to laugh at [the Robertsons] as some kind of hillbillies," said Hill. "But it had the Archie Bunker effect. Instead of laughing at them, people were laughing with them . . . [because] they truly admired the way the family lived their lives."

Duck Dynasty has a powerful hold on the public.  The fourth season premiere on Aug. 14 drew a record 11.77 million viewers.

Filling Christmas stockings in countless households, Duck Dynasty has also been a merchandising mega-success. Products with the Duck Dynasty brand name range from T-shirts, bobblehead dolls, and Chia Pets to strap-on beards that simulate the Robertson men's famous ZZ Top-type beards.

"Right now, they are absolutely the most popular family on TV," said Jo Piazza, executive news director for Life & Style magazine. "And I think this [controversy] will make it bigger . . . [by] bringing in a whole new audience."

Marc Malkin, one of E! News' most respected reporters, said in an interview that he was horrified by Phil's choice of words: "To pair homosexuality with bestiality . . . is just really heinous."

If the antigay fracas were not enough, the Duck disaster made fresh headlines a day later with the release of a 2010 video that shows Phil Robertson preaching at a church in Pottstown. Homosexuals are "full of murder," he says in the 50-minute segment, and "liable to invent ways of doing evil."

The bad press continued when another set of quotes from the GQ chat suggested Phil believed African Americans were happier before the civil rights movement.

In a statement amid the controversy, Phil said he abhors intolerance and discrimination. But he did not repudiate his views.

RadarOnline editor-in-chief Dylan Howard said this week's flap is not a surprise to anyone who knows the show.

The Robertsons "were always very up-front about being very conservative," Howard said. "What's ironic about A&E's actions is that the network banked on those beliefs" as part of the family's trademark.

Will this storm put a stake through the show's heart - or is it just a bump in the road? Reality TV thrives on controversy. Many professional prognosticators suspect A&E will work hard to keep the show, even if that means giving in to the family's demands to reinstate Phil.

"I don't think A&E expected all the blowback it would get as a result of suspending Phil," said Christopher Harper, who teaches communications law at Temple University. More complaints have centered on the decision to take Phil off the show than about his comments, said Harper. "The whole [scandal] shows the great division that exists between people who watch the programs and the people who produce them," he said.

He added that A&E should have asked Phil Robertson to explain his comments, not suspend him.

Many Americans share Robertson's views. This spring, a Pew Research Center survey found that 45 percent of people believe "engaging in homosexual behavior" is a sin.

"I'm a Roman Catholic and the stance of the church is that anyone, gay or straight, can come and worship," said Harper, "but the church opposes homosexual acts and same-sex marriage."

Viewers appreciate the Robertsons because they have a clearly defined - and widely shared - value system, said Piazza: "Phil is front and center in professing the Gospels and in expounding on his faith-based values.

"The Duck family offers an antithesis to opportunists like the Kardashians" and the stars of the Housewives franchise, said Piazza. "They make their decisions based on how it will affect the family's well-being, not on profit."

Eric Schiffer of Reputation Management Consultants, a firm that helps Fortune 500 executives and celebrities protect their names and reputation online, said the Robertsons "embody authenticity, traditional American values. . . . They're also rebels because they are their own people who aren't looking for approval."

Love them or hate them, the Robertsons embody a pure vision of the American dream, said Hill. "We look at the Kardashians and the Housewives [stars] with some disdain; they don't work, they are too ostentatious, spoiled," he said. The Robertsons are wealthy not by birth or marriage or by doing unfulfilling, boring jobs, but by "working hard in a profession they genuinely and passionately love" - duck hunting.

"And they did it without compromising their values," said Hill, unlike "corporate CEOs and politicians who have to compromise their values to get power and wealth."

Hill added that "it's such an amazing and compelling dream."


Show: Debuted March 2012 on A&E; Season 5 scheduled to begin in January 2014

Family business: Duck Commander Co., West Monroe, La. Created to sell the Duck Commander duck call (invented 1972). Incorporated 1973. Founder: Phil Robertson. Current CEO: Willie Robertson.

Viewership: Season 4 debuted Aug. 14 to an audience of 11.77 million. That's a record for nonfiction weekly cable shows. 

Christmas album: "Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas." No. 1 on Billboard's Country and Holiday charts over 575,000 since October, it is already certified Gold.

Other stocking stuffers: Five best-selling books; Chia Pets; "Duck Dynasty" bobblehead dolls.