The A&E cable channel has a huge hit show in “Duck Dynasty” and a huge PR problem with the star of the show, Phil Robertson, who will not back down from comments he has made disparaging homosexuals and questioning whether blacks really had it so bad in the days of segregation and Jim Crow.
And A&E’s even bigger problem is that their leverage over Robertson and his clan is slight. Yes, the network has suspended Papa Robertson from participation in the show, but the family is not inclined to tell their patriarch to shut up. With offers from other channels already coming in, they know their TV franchise is portable. A&E needs them more than they need A&E.
Far from being cowed, Robertson reasserted his beliefs Sunday at a Bible study group in West Monroe, La., declaring, “I will not give or back off from my path.” All he has done is cite the teachings of scripture, Robertson insisted.
“Jesus will take sins away,” he said. “If you're a homosexual, he'll take it away. If you're an adulterer, if you’re a liar, what's the difference? If you break one sin you may as well break them all.”
Robertson has made a string of such comments over several years equating homosexuality with every kind of wickedness, including murder. When gay rights groups expressed outrage last week, A&E executives felt they had no choice but to distance themselves from Robertson, fearing the controversy would damage their brand.
Cracker Barrel, the restaurant and country store chain, also decided its business would suffer if it continued its association with the show and so stopped offering “Duck Dynasty” merchandise on Friday. Two days later, though, the same paraphernalia was back on the shelf. The company issued a statement that said, “When we made the decision to remove and evaluate certain 'Duck Dynasty' items, we offended many of our loyal customers. Our intent was to avoid offending, but that's just what we've done.”
Reacting to rage from the left, Cracker Barrel got hit by a firestorm from the right. Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, evangelical pastors and many other conservative voices stated loudly and clearly that Robertson’s views are shared by plenty of Americans. Robertson may be mocked by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but he has champions at Fox News. Cracker Barrel capitulated as soon as it realized it has many more customers watching Sean Hannity than Comedy Central.
Will the A&E crew stick to its guns and risk losing “Duck Dynasty” to a competitor? Initially, they probably hoped the controversy would die down and Robertson could be brought back to the show quietly, but now that their star has become a champion to Christian conservatives, the outcry may only grow louder.
Somebody smart should have known that turning a Deep South duck call millionaire into a celebrity might come with a some risk. In a country that seems as culturally polarized as it has ever been, it is no surprise that a reality show has gotten a little too real.