Before December of 2013, Duck Dynasty was a network’s dream: an inoffensive, semi-scripted reality program that received little attention outside of its core audience but still attracted millions of viewers. By any standard, Duck Dynasty was a smash. The season 4 premiere drew 11.7 million viewers. Even for a buzzed about scripted drama like Scandal, those numbers would be big. For a cable network, they were enormous.
The Duck Dynasty stars and A&E also cashed in on merchandising and branding, with their likenesses being found on anything from sweatshirts to coffee mugs and even a Chia Pet. This is an operation that could’ve chugged on for years, continued to make money for its network and stars, entertain the core audience, and be pretty much ignored by the rest of us. The nice smooth ride then came to a screeching halt in late 2013 in one of the biggest network PR blunders in recent memory.
In an interview for GQ magazine, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson had some extremely incendiary things to say regarding gays and the bible. When asked by reporter Drew Magary about what constitutes “sin” he stated:
“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
The reaction to the comments was swift and overwhelmingly negative. A&E then announced Phil Robertson’s “suspension,” a disingenuous move considering the fact that the new season was practically finished shooting before the GQ article surfaced. It was lifted soon after. However, once the mainstream media correctly called Robertson out on his archaic homophobia, the increased attention got the Duck Dynasty crew a whole new group of fans who may have ended up doing them more harm than good.
Within weeks, the Duck Dynasty cast were the darlings of the far-right conservative fringe who had paid the show and the family behind it little attention before. Former Vice Presidential candidate turned professional conservative victim Sarah Palin defended Robertson’s words (while later admitting she’d never read the interview), and the GOP decided to make son Willie Robertson an “honored guest” at their response to President Obama’s State Of The Union address. These are the types of people that defiantly rail against same-sex marriage and LGBT rights even as both gain unprecedented public support. Now, they’ve aligned themselves with Duck Dynasty.
Media types that saw blood in the water pounced, and the following weeks saw more negative stories about Robertson and other cast members come to light. There was the disturbing video of the elder Robertson advising men to marry 15 year old girls and, perhaps most damning of all, the remarkably clean-cut photos of son Willie and his family from earlier days that suggest that they may be more comfortable on the beaches of The Hamptons than in the swamps of Louisiana. Robertson’s words had now exposed the family and the show to be not only backwards and homophobic, but also something that could be even worse: a fraud.
The unprecedented media attention that the show received as a result of the comments caused more cynical observers to think that perhaps the entire thing was a publicity stunt by A&E to bring more eyeballs to the show. All eyes were on A&E to see how the new season would perform after all the media attention and how it would live up to the record-breaking ratings in the season before it. If the numbers grew, then the controversy could’ve only helped and even attracted more viewers from the right-wing promotion than they had before. If they shrunk, well then maybe letting Phil Robertson take that ATV ride with the GQ interviewer while unchaperoned by an A&E PR rep wasn’t a great idea. Then…the new season of Duck Dynasty underperformed.
Ordinarily, a cable reality show premiering to 8.5 million viewers would be reason to celebrate, and in a lot of ways for A&E and the Duck Dynasty crew, it still was. However, that 8.5 million viewers was down a full 28 percent from the previous season opener. That is millions of viewers less than before and millions of dollars lost in future advertising revenue for A&E. Then, the bad news just kept on coming and the ratings slipped to a low of 4.7 million viewers in later episodes. Duck Dynasty was then subjected to yet another negative round of press after a CNN interview meant to promote the season finale. Appearing on CNN’s New Day, Willie Robertson was unrepentant about the controversy and the cycle of bad press repeated itself once again. The season ended with six million viewers, down from the aforementioned 10 million the previous year.
Duck Dynasty is by no means “over.” The show will continue, the merchandise will sell, and both A&E and the cast members will continue to make millions, but the brand will be forever tainted by Robertson’s words and the tone-deaf alignment with a far right fringe that most moderate Americans take great pains to avoid or ignore completely.
In a world where a Disney channel sitcom introduces lesbian moms and one of the most popular comedies on network television features a gay male couple raising a child, it is clear that the boundaries of what is considered “family friendly” are rapidly expanding to be more inclusive of LGBT people. By embracing homophobia and doubling down on it with the embrace of the conservative right, the father/son duo and most prominent faces of Duck Dynasty destroyed the core of their brand, which was that of a family-friendly reality show.
The millions of viewers who’ve abandoned Duck Dynasty sent a clear and firm message: hate is not a family value. Brands, television networks, and all others who wish to maintain a successful business in 2014, take note: what happened to Duck Dynasty can happen to you. When it comes to the gays: if you can’t say anything nice…well, you know the rest.