The rule of thumb goes something like this: When a TV network executive says something stupid, bigoted or controversial, viewers will occasionally consider boycotting the channel. But when a star says something stupid, bigoted or controversial (or all three), everyone will tune in to see if he'll do it again.
The question at the moment is whether the boys from Duck Dynasty have offended so many people that the network will have to retool the mega-popular show at a time when it's averaging a staggering 14 million viewers per episode. Advertisers are unlikely to pull out of the show—it's a reality show, after all, with all the risk that implies. If some do, there's plenty of room for those GRPs among the network's other series and among its sister networks (History and Lifetime, particularly) for those skittish about Phil Robertson's unpopular politics.
Robertson, patriarch of Duck Dynasty's Louisiana-based millionaire clan of duck call-making entrepreneurs, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a staunch conservative who believes that the United States was founded on Christian values and who is mighty upset with the way things have gone over the last few decades. “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there," Robertson told GQ's Drew Magary in an interview in which he also compared gay sex to copulating with animals. That led A&E to suspend the star which, in turn, provoked outrage among fans who took to social media to push for a boycott of the network. Advertisers have so far remained silent on the issue. "Phil is a genius," said one buyer. "If he wanted off the show, this was the way to do it."
"Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men" were among the activities Robertson expressed disapproval of in the lengthy magazine piece—occasionally in graphic terms. "It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical." Robertson went on to condemn Nazis, Communists, "Shintos" and "Islamists."
In additional material on the GQ website, Robertson also said that pre-civil rights movement African-Americans living in Louisiana weren't mistreated at all as far as he knew. "Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy?" he said. "They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
A&E swiftly took serious action. "His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community," said the company in a statement Wednesday. "The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely."
That couldn't have been an easy decision. The network has been reaping incredible rewards from arguably the most popular show on TV next to AMC's monster hit The Walking Dead. Duck Dynasty's fourth season is in the can—the question is how the network will handle the episodes upon its Jan. 16 return.
To make matters worse, the network can't seem to win. Liberals are fuming over Robertson's remarks, while high-profile conservatives are furious about the suspension. Take publicity-loving pundit Sarah Palin, who tweeted:
Free speech is endangered species; those "intolerants" hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all —Sarah Palin (@SarahPalinUSA) December 19, 2013
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a formal statement in support of Robertson, which said: "The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with." It hasn't exactly been Jindal's year, politically speaking, which may explain why he's eager to weigh in on a cultural issue that's largely tangential to his gubernatorial duties, arguably. "I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment," Jindal wrote. "It is a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended."
Naturally, the situation has been a gold mine for Twitter's one-liner brigade. Among the most retweeted:
"We've been trying to tell you! These guys are assholes!" – ducks re: Duck Dynasty — Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) December 19, 2013
Despite the massive numbers, will A&E be forced to cut Phil out of the series to avoid public-shaming campaigns? It is, after all, a series widely lauded for its family values, and the controversy has generated attention to get plenty of new viewers if it continues to run with the Robertson father figure intact. But given the apparent seriousness with which Robertson made the remarks, an apology from the man himself seems unlikely.