Whatever eventually happens with the Great Duck Dynasty Meltdown of 2013—and if you’re behind, you can catch up here and here—one thing is incontrovertibly true: as the television business gets more and more fractured and the viewing audience gets more and more scattered, the balance of business power shifts away from network executives and towards guys like Phil Robertson.
And that’s fine with me.
Ten things to consider:
1. Duck Dynasty is the #1 reality (unscripted) television show in cable history. It debuted last season to almost 12 million viewers. Twelve million. Want to hear something fun? On Monday night this week, MSNBC had about 600,000 viewers.
2. The cable outfit on which Duck Dynasty appears, A&E, cannot afford to lose the show. It’s holding up the rest of their programming, lifting the network into prominence at a time when the cable universe is engaged in brutal and vicious competition. The only way to survive in the new television business is with break-out programming.
3. You know what works on television? Characters. Not plot, not dialogue, not special effects. Just characters. For the audience, a television show isn’t a one-time decision. People become friends—in a weird but meaningful way—with the shows they like because they want to spend time with the characters on the show, either real or scripted. Or should I say, “real,” because a lot of these “reality” shows are heavily produced and edited to tease out the bigger personalities.
4. I didn’t say you have to “relate” to the characters on television. Or “approve” of them. You just have to find them interesting and likable. Twelve million people “like” the family on Duck Dynasty. I don’t think that means that those 12 million people agree with the Biblical interpretations of the patriarch—maybe they do, but they don’t have to, enjoying the show doesn’t require that — but every single viewer who watches the show likes the characters and their world enough to actively choose—and that’s important: television viewing now is active and choice-driven; gone are the days when viewers would leave the set tuned to a network and watch whatever came next—to devote some time and effort to the show.
5. The second most important thing in the television business is to have a solid core of viewers who actively love your show.
6. The most important thing in the television business is to have a solid core of viewers who actively love your show, and have that solid core be numbered in the millions.
7. Please see Item #1.
8. When the Robertson family announced that they “cannot imagine the show going forward” without the participation of their family patriarch, Phil, what they were saying, essentially, was this: This is our show, this is our business, we are bigger than A&E and the terrified executives who run it, and we have the numbers to prove it. They’re right. And they were also saying this: if you put real characters on television, you can’t freak out when they act real and in character.
9. Duck Dynasty is a monster hit not despite the Bible-centered faith of its stars, but because of it. In the vast, manicured, same-same universe of programming—where everyone is either a Real Housewife or a metropolitan hipster—Duck Dynasty offers something different. A choice. A change of pace. That’s why people watch it. The 12 million viewers don’t have to love duck hunting or camo pants or ZZ Top beards or even the Bible. They just love the differentness and specialness of the family. It’s fun to spend 25 minutes watching them interact.
10. A&E will cave. Some weasel-worded press release will go out, some oddly-constructed sentence about “faith” and “love” and some other stuff is probably right now being sweated and screamed about in the sleek city offices of A&E—you know what I mean, right? Aeron chairs and brightly-colored wall hangings, “fun” conference rooms and Nespresso machines—all because the programmers made a horrible, horrible mistake and put someone interesting on television.
They’re probably searching the office for someone—anyone!—who knows something—anything!—about the Bible to help craft the request to the Robertson family that they “clarify” their beliefs. My guess is that they’re trying to figure out how to ask Phil Robertson to say that he believes in Jesus Christ’s essential teaching—love others as yourself—and that we’re all sinners who need God’s grace and forgiveness. Which will be easy, I think, because Phil Robertson seems like a pretty devoted Christian and that’s a fairly Christian thing to say. But the gang at A&E doesn’t know that because—and here we get to the nubbin of the matter—finding someone who knows and respects religion in network television is harder than finding a rabbi in Tehran.
[Full disclosure: I've never seen an episode of the show. I'm not a fan of reality television. I prefer scripted television, especially the kind scripted by me, because that always comes with a check attached. But I'm still rooting for the Robertson family, despite being a metropolitan secular RINO who loves gays and gay marriage and who once thought seriously about owning an electric car. Because television needs different and special to survive.]