Home Update: Why A&E caved on Duck Dynasty

Update: Why A&E caved on Duck Dynasty


You’ve no doubt heard the breaking news: Phil Robertson is back on A&E’s Duck Dynasty. If you’ve been reading my columns on the Duck Dynasty story, you knew this was coming, because you knew that this was a manufactured controversy.

Here is the full statement from A&E:

As a global media content company, A&E Networks’ core values are centered around creativity, inclusion and mutual respect. We believe it is a privilege for our brands to be invited into people’s homes, and we operate with a strong sense of integrity and deep commitment to these principles.

That is why we reacted so quickly and strongly to a recent interview with Phil Robertson. While Phil’s comments made in the interview reflect his personal views based on his own beliefs and his own personal journey, he and his family have publicly stated they regret the “coarse language” he used and the misinterpretation of his core beliefs based only on the article. He also made it clear he would “never incite or encourage hate.” We at A&E Networks expressed our disappointment with his statements in the article and reiterate that they are not views we hold.

But Duck Dynasty is not a show about one man’s views. It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family … a family that America has come to love. As you might have seen in many episodes, they come together to reflect and pray for unity, tolerance and forgiveness. These are three values that we at A&E Networks also feel strongly about.

So after discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family.

We will also use this moment to launch a national public service campaign (PSA) promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people, a message that supports our core values as a company and the values found in Duck Dynasty. These PSAs will air across our entire portfolio.

No, this wasn’t manufactured, not at all. The timing (the week before Christmas), the fact that nine of the 10 shows ordered for Season 5 were already in the can, and no doubt cameras were rolling as the two sides “negotiated” this “compromise,” it’s all coincidence.

If I sound angry pointing this all out, again, I’m not, at all. This “controversy” had nothing to do with free speech rights, as the barking heads on the right made it out to be, but rather a more basic right to commerce, and God love ‘em all for engaging in it.

A&E makes $80 million a year in ad sales on Duck Dynasty, 16 percent of its overall ad sales take in a year. They were never going to put that in jeopardy, just as neither the family nor the network was going to put at risk the $400 million a year in merchandise sales generated by the attention that the show brings to the brand.

The only criticism I can offer here is that I think they should have let the “controversy” linger a while longer. My bet is that this was the plan at the outset, but the heat got way, way too hot. I’d think it was in the plans to let this ride out all the way to the Season 5 finale, but eight days into it, with hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions calling for Robertson’s reinstatement, and millions upon millions of Facebook comments promising A&E with financial ruin if Phil wasn’t returned to the show, both sides would have realized that it was time to call their “truce” and move on to the task at hand, i.e. making more money.

I think the early truce could end up having a more harmful long-term impact on the show than Phil’s “banishment.” The Season 5 premiere is still more than two weeks away, on Jan. 15. If the “controversy” were still live as of season premiere night, I think you could have taken last year’s season premiere record viewer haul of 11.8 million as a low starting point for where this year’s premiere would have come in, with the continued news headlines on the “controversy” helping lure in new viewers to the franchise.

You’re still going to get your Duck Dynasty Nation denizens to tune in, but the free media isn’t going to be there to hype the premiere to a bigger audience, and it’s hard to imagine the “controversy” having legs to last two more weeks to keep those currently interested in checking the show out maybe for the first time to still have that level of interest on premiere night.

It’s still possible that the season finale, which I imagine will revolve around the past eight days, will draw rubberneckers, but there’s a risk in promoting the storyline akin to how the people who write pro-wrestling storylines have to be careful not to offend the segment of viewers of their programming that believe that the product is “real.” Most of us know that Duck Dynasty and other “reality” TV programs are about as real as pro wrestling, but does most of the audience that tunes in every week? Maybe, maybe not.

A nod to those of us who are in on the joke to try to get us to watch might risk losing the base of viewers who don’t want to know that Duck Dynasty is a marketing gimmick aimed at bringing in ad dollars and selling overpriced, logoed merchandise at Wal-Mart and Cracker Barrel.

Notice that I haven’t devoted a single line of this analysis, to this point, anyway, to the substance of what it was that got Phil Robertson suspended from the show in the first place. That’s because, to me, this was never about what he said, how he said it, who he offended and the rest.

This was and is and will be about money. Which is, ultimately, what everything in America comes down to. The rest is just window dressing.

Column by Chris Graham



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