Ten Things to Consider about the Business of Duck Dynasty

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.]

  1. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Rob Long:

    1.  Duck Dynasty is the #1 reality (unscripted) television show…

    Question for you Rob -

    Has the definition of scripted and unscripted changed at all in television since “reality” TV has emerged?

    My uneducated guess is that some of these shows set up the scene [we are going here] the plot [to do this] and even prod the dialogue [character 1 is unhappy, so he says some of those funny and sarcastic things he says].

    Is that how they work?  Can it really be called unscripted when everything but the precise words are set up?

  2. Yudansha

    I posted this over on Peter’s Duck Dynasty thread:

    The network needs the Robertson’s infinitely more than the Robertson’s need the network. This group of men (unless they’re much better actors than they appear to be on TV) can give A&E the middle-finger-salute and go about their lives in perfect contentment.   Phil was successful and rich before A&E “discovered” him and he would be perfectly well-off without them. He holds the fortunes of A&E in his hands… not the other way around.  Lest we forget, Duck Dynasty is the one and only A&E cash-cow. 

    I just can’t believe that the professionally-offended cretins at GLAAD wield enough influence to convince A&E executives take food out of the mouths of their children.  I imagine that after averyshort but public ‘tsk-tsk,’ A&E execs will quietly cave, and Phil will be back in the driver’s seat. 

  3. Doug Kimball

    Ah, but your aversion to reality TV will change to a lucrative love as I predicted for 2014 here (see post #29.)  You will soon be very familiar with the Robertson clan! 

  4. Whiskey Sam

    That type of viewership rivals top ten programming in broadcast primetime.  We talked about this a bit on the AMU last night, but doesn’t this scream that there is a sizable audience of people not being served by typical programming?

  5. Boymoose

    If I was the Duck folk I would walk away and live happily ever after.  I, of course am not the Duck folk.

    Interesting post Rob.

  6. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Very informative — and a hoot! I look forward to the climb-down.

  7. Mike LaRoche

    “Duck Dynasty” will move to The Blaze.

  8. Mike LaRoche

    And bring back “Star Trek: Enterprise”!

  9. Miffed White Male
    Nick Stuart: At my office, CNN runs on all the TVs all the time. Yesterday I walked into the cafeteria and there was Christianne Ammanpour (or, as my juvenile mind likes to style it “Analpore”) with a “high noon on 9/11” expression on her face, gesturing wildly and speaking breathlessly (as far as I could tell since the sound is kept off).

    What could it be? Iran gets nukes? North Korea invades South? FastAndFuriousIRSBenghaziNSAObamacare Scandal? The Euro implodes? The Dollar implodes? Wolf Blitzer implodes?

    No, it was Phil Robertson followed by a report on gay athletes at Sochi.

    Really? This is the most important thing?

    Yes, I concur, it isanimportant thing for all the reasons endlessly discussed already.

    But themost important thing? Really? · 24 minutes ago

    “Gay” is now the most important thing in the world.  I have no idea how it happened, but it did.

    Have you watched the show “Glee”?  It’s first season, there was one gay character.  Now, it’s the gayest show on Television.  There is probably hardcore male-on-male porn that is less obsessed with  ”gay” than the current season of Glee.

  10. flownover

    They were getting $200k per episode. If the show is continued and the per episode payoff gets bigger, who do we credit with savvy negotiation ? Phil , God , or Glaad ?

    Maybe we just better shut up and thank Aunt Kay.

  11. Matede

    Haven’t these Network executives learned a lesson from Don Imus. A devoted fan base is devoted to the talent not the network. A&E really blew it.

    I hope the Robertson’s walk even if A&E capitulates, other network executives or Radio executives need to learn a lesson from this. Don’t cave to the professionally aggrieved . We need to fight back from their bullying tactics.

  12. Karen

    Here is something folks need to understand, the Robertsons consider the audience for the show their mission field. They do this not for the fame or money – they had all they wanted already – they are doing this to share the message of Jesus. That probably is shocking and down right counter-cultural to an industry and even culture that constantly gets fame-whores shoved in their faces. This family is the anti-thesis of the Kardashians, and people love them for it. But if they feel like the show isn’t giving glory to God, they’ll walk. They have nothing to lose, whereas A&E has everything to lose. People think the beards, the church-going, and hunting are fake. It’s not. People – millions of them – are like this. They don’t give a rip about merchandizing, ratings and fame. I bet you most of the money goes back to their church – which has a huge disaster outreach ministry.

  13. Doug Kimball

    I’ve watched the show, not regularly, but a few times and it is both funny and endearing.  Much is made of their hunting and fishing, but I must say that they obviously enjoy these pastimes and dress like it’s a daily activity, but it isn’t.  They do these things because they are fun.  They aren’t professional guides or even hard core outdoorsmen. They’re worm fishermen and duck hunters, down to earth guys who don’t take anything too seriously, at least not on camera.  They are the antithesis of the humorless liberal who sees the world as a series of causes and protests, who can’t relax until every grievance is heard and every oppressor is slain.   

  14. Richard O

    Prediction: 

    1. AandE will cave quickly

    2. Their press release will be mockable
    3. Duck Dynasty moves to another network anyway.
    4. The left will replace the cast of Duck Dynasty will replace Sarah Palin as a right wing whipping boy.

    I’ve never watched the show – but now I will…..

  15. Pencilvania

    Very interesting post, Rob.  

    I wonder, just what kind of pressure was brought upon A&E to make them risk sabotaging their top show?  What bad things did they think would happen to them if they immediately stood by Phil, instead of immediately throwing him under the bus?

    And was there a reason why GQ released the controversial quotes from Phil now?

  16. Asquared
    Rob Long: I’m not a fan of reality television. I prefer scripted television..

    Tangential note, does anyone believe that “reality television” isn’t scripted anymore? 

    I seem to recall a hubbub a while back about writers for some reality tv shows suing for something (royalties, I think). 

    I’ve watched about 5 mins of Duck Dynasty just to see what all the fuss was about, and the part I saw was obviously scripted.  

  17. EstoniaKat
    Mike LaRoche: And bring back “Star Trek: Enterprise”! · 1 hour ago

    I wish. But “Star Trek: Renegades” looks interesting. Fan films. The new frontier. Until it returns. And I would crawl on my belly to be part of that writing staff.

  18. Vince Guerra
    Rob Long: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

    I hadn’t considered this before but you’re so correct. When I reflect on the shows, movies or books that I love it is the characters that endear them to me. It’s why the movies are always letdowns over the books. It’s probably why I loved the first three Bourne films but didn’t care for the last one (different character). It’s also why I wrote off Downton Abbey when they started killing off characters. Thanks for the insight.

  19. skoook

    This expertly crafted, timely column and 35 comments, all relatively insightful are why Ricochet worth paying for

  20. BrentB67

    Rob, we’ve never met and I hear you are a squish and I am card carrying right wing fanatic, but your full dislcosure at the end is priceless and warms my heart with a kind of capitalist holiday kinship.

    Full disclosure: I don’t own a television, but keep the hits coming.

    Merry Christmas