'Duck Dynasty': What the Reality Hit (and Phil Robertson) Mean to A&E

Phil Robertson Duck Dynasty 4 - H 2013

Phil Robertson Duck Dynasty 4 - H 2013

The suspension of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson by A+E Networks in the wake of Robertson's anti-gay remarks have spurred a vicious backlash against the media company that have included death threats against company executives and the Robertson family's elliptical threat to quit the show. But industry insiders expect the controversy to blow over. And one noted that the Louisiana bayou clan "will be back in production in six months" – with Phil Robertson. And a network source tells The Hollywood Reporter that chances are good that the show can be saved.

Representatives for the family and A+E Networks have been in contact since the controversy first arose after Robertson was quoted in a GQ article comparing homosexuality with "bestiality." But while the Robertsons have reaped a financial windfall estimated in the millions from the sale of merchandise through their Duck Commander label and have become sought after on the paid speaker circuit, they do not own the show, which is produced by Gurney Productions, itself a subsidiary of U.K.-based ITV. And a new long-term deal negotiated earlier this year and which retroactively included the fourth season and the upcoming 10-episode fifth season of Duck Dynasty keeps the Robertson family locked in to the A&E show for many seasons to come. A+E Networks has lost only one advertiser since Robertson's remarks, said a network source who declined to identify the company.

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Nevertheless, a Facebook page calling for a boycott of A&E until Robertson is "put back on Duck Dynasty" has generated more than 1.5 million likes. And a steady stream of criticism from conservative firebrands including Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh has certainly helped keep the story in the headlines. Palin, who recently completed a deal to host a show on Sportsman Channel, defended Robertson, who she said was simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.

"Free speech is an endangered species," she wrote Dec. 18 on her Facebook page. "Those 'intolerants' hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us."

And while the conservative outcry has fanned the flames of outrage, one industry source dismissed Palin's repost as a self-serving grab for attention: "Sarah Palin's comments are an obvious attempt to regain some relevance for herself."

But the viscous backlash from Robertson's supporters has unnerved executives at A+E Networks, who have been on the receiving end of death threats. And the company has hired extra security for its Manhattan headquarters. No further announcements are expected over the holidays, but the Robertsons and A+E remain in talks.

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Duck Dynasty has been the most significant ratings performer in A&E history. Following big unscripted success in the Storage Wars franchise and an increasingly resonant block of scripted originals, it premiered in 2012 to modest numbers only to become cable's No. 2 series within a year. It ranks behind only The Walking Dead as cable's top performer, averaging 13.4 million viewers and 7.6 million adults 18-49 in live-plus-7 ratings. A&E has used the strong lead-in to give solid launches to new series such as Modern Dads and Bad Ink.

But the shelf life of most reality franchises is limited, and show's like Duck Dynasty, which revolve around subcultures – much like MTV's Jersey Shore and TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo – may burn hotter and faster than their format-based counterparts. History's Pawn Stars, which bowed in 2009 and by 2011 was pulling in 7 million viewers (at the time the most watched telecast ever on A&E's sister network), remains a steady if not stratospheric performer for History and unlike Duck Dynasty has sold well internationally, an increasingly significant revenue stream for content companies.

Christian Murphy, senior vp, international programming and marketing at A+E Networks, noted the "universal appeal" of Pawn Stars  and called it “the gift that keeps on giving” during a recent interview with Realscreen, while Duck Dynasty has yet to be "universally embraced."

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And Duck Dynasty is showing signs of fatigue. Cramming two full seasons and one holiday special into the calendar year, A&E saw the Dec. 11 Christmas outing fall shy of records with a still-formidable 8.9 million viewers. The series, which hit a live-plus-same-day high with 11.8 million viewers in August, performs noticeably softer when broadcast competition is heavier.

After settling a months-long salary standoff in August, one that continued through production of the fourth season, A&E signed the entire Robertson clan to a multiyear deal that sees them netting north of $200,000 per episode. The network isn't shying away from airing those seasons in rapid succession, either. The fifth run premieres Jan. 15. Nine of the 10 episodes have been shot – with Phil Robertson. So any suspension is likely to impact only one episode of the show.

The show currently is on hiatus due in part to the commencement of duck hunting season, which continues through Jan. 26 in Louisiana.