A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” is not just the most popular reality show on cable TV. It’s a rallying point for middle America, proof that down-home folks from the back country can make good and become mega-stars.
But now Phil Robertson, one of the show’s biblically bearded clan members who helped turn a family duck-call business into a cultural phenomenon, has made some comments that have A&E executives singing the blues. In fact, the very survival of the show may be at stake.
In an interview with GQ, Robertson called gay people “homosexual offenders” and seemed to equate gay sex with bestiality. He also said that he “never” saw blacks mistreated in the pre-civil rights era. “No one was singing the blues,” he said.
The comments were quickly condemned by GLAAD and the NAACP. Wednesday, A&E said it was “extremely disappointed” by Robertson’s remarks and put him on an indefinite hiatus from the show.
The way forward is unclear. A&E may find it difficult to bring Robertson back without seeming self-serving and hypocritical – and without attracting more attention from pressure groups. Advertisers might flee rather than risk an ongoing controversy, but the close-knit Robertson clan may not like the idea of soldiering on without one of its members.
What is clear is that TV finds itself in another cultural hot zone. The “Duck Dynasty” situation recalls last summer’s uproar over celebrity chef Paula Deen, who lost her Food Network gig and many sponsorship deals after she admitted she had “of course” used a racial epithet in the past. TLC pulled an episode of “Cake Boss” in 2012 after “Cousin Anthony” mocked a transgender guest. Similar flare-ups damaged the careers of radio host Don Imus and actor Isaiah Washington after they were accused of using racially insensitive or homophobic speech.
These cases reflect larger rifts in American life – call it a split between progressives and traditionalist values. A Los Angeles Times story about Robertson’s hiatus had logged more than 250 comments by late Wednesday, running the gamut from supporting the star to advocating the show’s cancellation. “This PC garbage is getting out of hand,” one pro-Phil commenter wrote.
But the particular problem for the TV industry is that it’s trying to profit off the same cultural tensions it’s exploiting. That inevitably leads to problems such as the current one engulfing “Duck Dynasty.” The reality programming trend in recent years has made stars out of everyone from bakers to pawn brokers to catfish-wranglers. That these “authentic” people have opinions and values that don’t always jibe with those of the media elite in New York and Los Angeles isn’t necessarily surprising.
But it means that the executives and PR handlers have had to get very good at backpedaling away from uncomfortable realities. That’s most likely what we’re seeing happen right now on “Duck Dynasty.”