The “Duck Dynasty” family and cable television’s A&E have lots of reasons to resolve the controversy sparked by patriarch Phil Robertson’s comments about gays: almost $500 million in fact.
Robertson, the 67-year-old head of a Louisiana family that makes duck-hunting gear, was suspended indefinitely last week by A&E Television Networks LLC after telling GQ magazine that homosexuals were akin to adulterers, the greedy, drunkards and swindlers and would not “inherit the kingdom of God.” A&E is co-owned by Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.
His comments and suspension put at risk a show that has exploded in popularity since it first began airing in March 2012. “Duck Dynasty” has generated $400 million in merchandise sales, according to Forbes magazine. The show has produced almost $80 million in advertising sales for A&E this year through September, according to Kantar Media, a more than fourfold increase from a year earlier.
“‘Duck Dynasty’ is A&E’s biggest revenue generator and major viewer franchise,” said Porter Bibb, managing partner at Mediatech Capital Partners, a New York-based merchant bank. “America believes in second acts,” he added, predicting Robertson “will be given another chance.”
The audience for the program, a reality series following the antics of Robertson, his family and their Duck Commander business in West Monroe, Louisiana, has soared since the show’s debut. “Duck Dynasty” is averaging 14.6 million viewers an episode this season, according to Nielsen data. That puts the program among the most-watched regularly scheduled cable shows. Episodes end with the family saying a prayer.
The Robertson family, including the co-stars, said on their website duckcommander.com that “while some of Phil’s unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible.”
The family also said they couldn’t imagine “Duck Dynasty” going forward without their patriarch and that they were in talks with A&E about the show’s future.
In its statement, New York-based A&E said, “We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series ‘Duck Dynasty.’ His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community.
Michael Feeney, an A&E spokesman, declined to comment beyond the statement. ITV Plc (ITV), the London-based owner of the show’s producer, Gurney Productions Inc., didn’t respond to a request for comment. ITV paid $40 million for the company in December 2012.
Robertson joins a growing list of celebrities who got into trouble with their producers this year after making insensitive remarks. Celebrity chef Paula Deen was let go by the Food Network in June after saying in court documents that she had used racial slurs. Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir left Comcast Corp.’s MSNBC after making controversial remarks.
“This is not different from Paula Deen,” said Michael Stone, who runs Beanstalk, a New York-based brand-licensing agency that’s part of Omnicon Group Inc. “I’m surprised that A&E has not pulled the entire show. The Food Network did the right thing. A&E is protecting their flank.”
The parties have time to work out a solution. A&E has recorded enough shows for the season that is scheduled to begin next month, the New York Times reported on Dec. 20. Shooting for episodes after that wouldn’t normally begin until spring.
In the meantime, the Robertsons have drawn support from religious groups backing the patriarch’s right to express his beliefs. Faith2Action, a North Royalton, Ohio, group that promotes family values, introduced MailtheDuck.com, which lets members of the public send a postcard or spend $7 to buy and mail a rubber duck to A&E in protest of Robertson’s suspension.
“We’ve had orders from every state,” Janet Porter, president and founder of Faith2Action, said in an interview. “They’re going to be wading in ducks.”
Porter makes a distinction between Robertson’s comments and those of Paula Deen.
“Racism’s not a biblical value,” Porter said. “He’s speaking what the Bible teaches.”
The Robertson family started their TV career producing hunting videos and appeared on The Outdoor Channel in 2009 in a show called “Benelli Presents Duck Commander,” according to IMDB.com. The family sent a highlight reel around to TV networks that drew A&E’s interest.
Stores continue to sell the merchandise, in part because of support from the religious community.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. (CBRL:US), the Lebanon, Tennessee-based operator of 625 restaurants, pulled its “Duck Dynasty” merchandise on Dec. 21, then backtracked the next day after customers protested.
“Today, we are putting all our ‘Duck Dynasty’ products back in our stores, and, we apologize for offending you,” the retailer said on its website. “We respect all individuals’ right to express their beliefs. We certainly did not mean to have anyone think different.”
The merchandise is widely available. Walgreen Co. (WAG:US) sells an Uncle Si Chia planter for $20. The closely held teen retailer Hot Topic Inc. offers 3 3/4-inch vinyl figures of cast members.
A search at Walmart.com produced 305 results, including a battery-powered children’s all-terrain vehicle for $149 and a $15 wood-finish cross pendant. The collection at Target Corp. includes bedding and coolers.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT:US) continues to carry “Duck Dynasty” merchandise, according to Sarah McKinney, a spokeswoman. She declined to comment on whether any merchandise had sold out. Target didn’t respond to a message left on its media hotline.
Bibb, the banker, lauded A&E for suspending Robertson, saying the move “shows great corporate integrity despite the jeopardy that put the network in with some viewers.”
Still, he’s confident the two sides will find a way to settle the controversy and keep the show on the air.
“You can count on that,” Bibb said.
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