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.]

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @AlvinMullins

    They’ve already been offered a home at the Blaze which would catapult Glenn Beck into the stratosphere. Any truth to the rumor that A&E is only getting about 50% viewership to their DD marathon?

    • #31
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    @KarenHumiston

    Glenn Beck already announced on his radio show that he’d be more than happy to add Duck Dynasty tohis network any day.  No surprise there.

    Tim H.: I would think, though, that they will always be able to reach a wider audience with a network than going off on their own.  Glenn Beck seems to have been able to make this work, but I don’t know of other examples.

     . . .

    Rob Long

    Aaron Miller

    Why not walk away from A&E regardless of the network’s response? They have a national, if not international, audience now. Why not open their own YouTube channel, hire their own crew, and contract with Christian advertisers?

    I’m sure A&E can offer resources which are hard to match. But the Robertson family is already wealthy. By going it alone, they would have total control and earn a fair royalty.

    It’s hard to beat the promotional power of a network.  But not that hard.  Especially these days.  This is going to happen more and more.

    21 hours ago

    • #32
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    @Schoolmarm
    Lucy Pevensie: OK, I am convinced. I need to try to watch Duck Dynasty.  Can I still see episodes of it somewhere? · 18 hours ago

    Lucy – Season 1 is available free on Amazon Prime.  The only other way I know to see full episodes is on the A&E website.  They usually offer only 3 full episodes at a time.  If anyone knows of another way to see full episodes (legally), I’m all ears!

    When I watched my first episode, I thought it was too contrived.  But I stuck with it and now I just love the whole family, esp. Uncle Si.  It takes a few episodes to “get it,” but then you won’t be able to keep from chuckling through the whole thing.  They’re really very charming and funny.

    • #33
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    @Schoolmarm

    If you want to see another side of the Robertson’s (the REAL reality of their lives), check out their I Am Second video – you won’t be able to turn away.  Riveting.  http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/the-robertsons/

    • #34
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    @

    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.]

    …Yes you Cooke, Goldberg, etc. are all cool (not mean & nasty). Could be why the majority opinion doesn’t win the culture wars. I mean if our side could ever stop saying, ‘I’m really not a bigot, racist, homophobe but…’
    • #35
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    @ScottAbel

    For someone interested in the business side of television, that’s a fascinating post, Rob. Please do it more. I’ve already forwarded it to my students.

    • #36
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    @KCMulville

    Seems too obvious to say, but if I wanted to watch a character who was exactly like my wife, and children who were exactly like my children, and have a job and coworkers who were exactly like my job and coworkers … what the heck would I need a television for?

    • #37
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    @AaronMiller
    Rob Long:

    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.

    Why not walk away from A&E regardless of the network’s response? They have a national, if not international, audience now. Why not open their own YouTube channel, hire their own crew, and contract with Christian advertisers?

    I’m sure A&E can offer resources which are hard to match. But the Robertson family is already wealthy. By going it alone, they would have total control and earn a fair royalty.

    • #38
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    @RobLong
    Aaron Miller

    Rob Long:

    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.

    Why not walk away from A&E regardless of the network’s response? They have a national, if not international, audience now. Why not open their own YouTube channel, hire their own crew, and contract with Christian advertisers?

    I’m sure A&E can offer resources which are hard to match. But the Robertson family is already wealthy. By going it alone, they would have total control and earn a fair royalty. · in 1 minute

    It’s hard to beat the promotional power of a network.  But not that hard.  Especially these days.  This is going to happen more and more.

    • #39
  10. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    KC Mulville: Seems too obvious to say, but if I wanted to watch a character who was exactly like my wife, and children who were exactly like my children, and have a job and coworkers who were exactly like my job and coworkers … what the heck would I need a television for? · 2 minutes ago

    You’d be shocked — or maybe not — to learn that what you just said is considered radical thinking in the television business.

    • #40
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    @dasmotorhead

    Thanks, Rob, really interesting.

    I was wondering about this yesterday when I realized no one (and by no one I mean me) can name a single show on A&E other than DD. All the Robertsons need to do is walk away, in whatever manner their contract allows. If A&E and the left want to exert their free-market right to suspend their biggest star, that star can exert his free-market right to more or less ruin them by walking away. We can only hope Atlas is about to shrug.

    • #41
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    @RyanM

    Once thought seriously about owning an electric car??  And to think I used to respect you, Rob.  [head shakes]

    • #42
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    @TimH

    Fantastic post, Rob!  I hope you’re right, and I’m glad to read the insight of somebody who’s in the business.  Given other things I’ve heard of the family, I suspected they would put principle and family loyalty above money, standing up to A&E, but I wasn’t sure.  And given how quickly networks and other companies seem to cave in to organized interest groups claiming offense, I didn’t have any idea how this would play out.  But I’m glad to see the Robertsons using their leverage.

    Incidentally, I can’t stand “reality” TV…except this one show.  It’s the only reality show I’ve watched since the first fifteen minutes of the first episode of the first season of Survivor.  (Building a bamboo hut was kind of neat.  Then I lost interest.)

    The reason I don’t like other reality shows are that they dwell on melodrama and rudeness and bad behavior, and they encourage people to complain about the others in the “interview”-type sessions.  

    But Duck Dynasty is different.  There’s no meanness, only friendly, light-hearted ribbing.  And these guys are funny.

    • #43
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    @ASquared
    Aaron Miller

    Why not walk away from A&E regardless of the network’s response? They have a national, if not international, audience now. Why not open their own YouTube channel, hire their own crew, and contract with Christian advertisers?

    Maybe Rob can answer this question, but I assume that A&E has certain TV rights such that the Robertsons cannot just pick up the show and move it someplace else.

    When Letterman moved networks, NBC had the rights to a bunch of regular bits on the show Letterman that had to program around. 

    I’m sure the Robertsons could do A show on a different network, but I would not be surprised if they were contractually restricted from doing THIS show on a different network, and if they got too close to the old show, they would be sued.

    You may recall that John Fogerty was once sued for copyright infringement for writing a song that sounded like a John Fogerty song, ie, he was sued for sounding like himself, because somebody else owned the rights to the previous song.

    • #44
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    @TimH

    I would think, though, that they will always be able to reach a wider audience with a network than going off on their own.  Glenn Beck seems to have been able to make this work, but I don’t know of other examples.

    If A&E caves to them (as I hope), then they’ve proven they have the upper hand over the network.  I’d stay with A&E, in that case.

    Rob Long

    Aaron Miller

    Why not walk away from A&E regardless of the network’s response? They have a national, if not international, audience now. Why not open their own YouTube channel, hire their own crew, and contract with Christian advertisers?

    I’m sure A&E can offer resources which are hard to match. But the Robertson family is already wealthy. By going it alone, they would have total control and earn a fair royalty.

    It’s hard to beat the promotional power of a network.  But not that hard.  Especially these days.  This is going to happen more and more.

    • #45
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    @mask

    Rob – Phil Robertson already said the things you mention in #10.  In the same GQ profile that’s getting all the attention.

    • #46
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @AaronMiller
    Rob Long

    It’s hard to beat the promotional power of a network.  But not that hard.  Especially these days.  This is going to happen more and more.

    Certainly. But remaining famous isn’t so hard as becoming famous. The Robertsons just have to strike while the iron’s hot.

    However the negotiations proceed, thousands of fans are walking around in Duck Dynasty T-shirts and talking about the family that stood up for traditional American principles.

    • #47
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    @DrewInWisconsin
    Rob Long: Want to hear something fun?  On Monday night this week, MSNBC had about 600,000 viewers

    Wow. That’s more than twice as many as have managed to sign up for Obamacare. If they can’t even convince their own viewers . . .

    • #48
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    @ArchieCampbell

    Rob, I recently test-drove a Tesla S P85+. That would persuade just about anyone to buy an electric car, its likely impractibility be damned. But then I remembered that I don’t have Tesla S P85+ money, and was sad.

    • #49
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    @EThompson

    3.  You know what works on television?  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.

    Great point. I’ve watched four TV shows almost religiously in my lifetime: Cheers, Frasier, Thirtysomething, and Seinfeld. (Compelling characters created by superior writing!)

    And let us not forget all of the past and present series offered on Masterpiece Theatre: Reckless, The House of Cards, Prime Suspect, and of course, Downton Abbey.

    • #50
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    @Tuck

    “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.”

    This is exactly what he said in the GQ interview:

    ““We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”

    Perhaps they could just quote him?There’s no way out of this for A&E where they look like anything but idiots.
    • #51
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    @AaronMiller

    Yes, Asquared, I wonder about what restrictions on an independent show A&E might have included in the contract. I would think merely recording the unscripted behaviors of a particular family would be difficult to copyright.

    Tim, Glenn Beck charged a subscription for his content. Last week, I downloaded the FOX network’s “FOXNow” app onto my Xbox, allowing me to stream their live network’s recent episodes (Almost Human, Sleepy Hollow, etc) with commercials whenever I want. Most TV consumers are probably not even aware of the free app yet. But I hope it’s the wave of the future: on-demand content without a subscription, supported by advertising.

    The game industry has proven the profitability of “free-to-play” content. A product has no initial cost other than download time. That attracts exponentially more “customers”, a percentage of which are willing to purchase content extensions and content qualifiers. That percentage of a massive audience can result in as much profit as one might make from 100% of a subscriber audience.

    I hope we are seeing the beginning of a TV service revolution… one which includes markets for conservative programming.

    • #52
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    @NickStuart

    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 is an important thing for all the reasons endlessly discussed already.

    But the most important thing? Really?

    • #53
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    @ProbableCause

    Maybe the Robertsons should buy A&E.

    • #54
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    @flownover
    Schoolmarm: If you want to see another side of the Robertson’s (the REAL reality of their lives), check out their I Am Second video – you won’t be able to turn away.  Riveting.  http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/the-robertsons/ · 15 hours ago

    Wow, thanks for that. I am secont. These folks have already won.

    • #55
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    @AnneColetta

    Rob, you wrote:

    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.

    A&E won’t have to ask the Robertsons to “clarify” their beliefs–Phil has already talked about loving others, that we are all sinners, etc. It was in the GQ interview and he has said it many times. All A&E needs to do is apologize.

    • #56
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    @SusaninSeattle

    And…the Instapundit has just Instalinked.

    • #57
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    @LucyPevensie
    Schoolmarm

    Lucy – Season 1 is available free on Amazon Prime.  The only other way I know to see full episodes is on the A&E website.  They usually offer only 3 full episodes at a time.  If anyone knows of another way to see full episodes (legally), I’m all ears!

    . . . They’re really very charming and funny.

    My daughter and I watched the three episodes on A&E and are now starting in on the first season on Amazon Prime.  It’s great. 

    The thing that all this commentary misses is that the Robertsons are  intelligent and in some ways intellectually sophisticated people, who make a conscious choice to maintain a lifestyle that is traditional to them.  Willie, for example, makes frequent references to being a “redneck,” even to trying to be one. The people we traditionally call “rednecks” don’t do that.  These people eat squirrels (blech) but they know perfectly well that doing so is appalling to much of the viewership. They do it for laughs and to be interesting, and to maintain a tradition–including the tradition of being able to live off the land, despite having the means to eat filet mignon. 

    • #58
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    @RPD

    Out of curiosity I took a look at A&E’s lineup tonight. Duck Dynasty marathon, followed by reruns of network cop shows, infomercials, and storage locker auctions. This is Arts and  Entertainment?

    • #59
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    @TimH

    You don’t like squirrel?  They’re really good.  Yes, they taste like chicken, at least the way I’ve had them, but they’re like personal-sized chicken servings.  Very tasty.  

    Lucy Pevensie

    These people eat squirrels (blech) but they know perfectly well that doing so is appalling to much of the viewership. They do it for laughs and to be interesting […]

    • #60
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