January 16, 2014 10:21am PT by Michael O'Connell
TV Ratings: 'Duck Dynasty' Returns Steady Amid Controversy
Duck Dynasty waded into uncharted waters on Wednesday night with the A&E hit's first new episode since star Phil Robertson made headlines in December for controversial remarks about gay people and the Jim Crow South.
Cable's reigning unscripted hit pulled 8.5 million viewers at 10 p.m. That's just 400,000 shy of the December Christmas special (8.9 million viewers) and 3.3 million down from last summer's record-breaking fourth season opener -- the latter still standing as a series high with 11.8 million viewers.
In the targeted demographic, Duck Dynasty averaged 4.2 million adults 18-49. That's enough to make it the top cable program of the night -- though it did not top American Idol. Fox's competition show, which premiered its 13th season at 8 p.m., easily outperformed Duck Dynasty with 15.2 million total viewers. The two were a tad closer in the key demo, with American Idol out-rating Duck Dynasty by 30 percent.
The Robertson family scandal, which briefly saw Phil Robertson suspended from the show, did not have many fearing a ratings drop -- but there were some expectations that the increased awareness around the show could see a lift. The steady showing does seem to imply that Duck Dynasty may have already hit its peak, though its previous record came during the less-competitive summer months.
Controversy surrounding the star's hiatus also rallied the show's conservative fan base. More than 200,000 signed a petition to have him reinstated.
Duck Dynasty's fourth season averaged 9.4 million viewers over the course of its run, with a substantial 5.1 million of them adults 18-49.