"Duck Dynasty" has been made whole again.
A&E announced late Friday that it was reversing its suspension of the hit show's patriarch, Phil Robertson, which was imposed last week after inflammatory comments about gay and black people made to a national magazine reporter. The network's decision clears the way for the entire Robertson family to resume filming the highly lucrative program this spring.
"While Phil's comments made in the interview reflect his personal views based on his own beliefs, and his own personal journey, he and his family have publicly stated they regret the 'coarse language' he used and the misinterpretation of his core belief based solely on the article," A&E executives said in a statement. "But 'Duck Dynasty' is not a show about one man's views. It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family … a family that America has come to love."
A&E said it consulted with "numerous advocacy groups" and would soon air public service announcements that would promote "unity, tolerance and acceptance." Network executives did not make themselves available for media interviews and it was not known whether any of the "Duck Dynasty" stars would participate in the announcements.
In an otherwise slow news cycle before the holidays, the furor surrounding the show exposed wide political and social rifts in the country and stocked cable news programs for days. Conservative commentators argued that Robertson was being punished for exercising his right to free speech and adhering to his Christian principles. A group called Faith Driven Consumers collected more than 250,000 signatures in an online petition that demanded that A&E reinstate Robertson.
Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said he was not surprised that A&E changed course.
"It was inevitable, but perhaps accelerated by the reaction they got," he said. "From the beginning it was a silly thing, and they were waiting for things to calm down. I don't think they were expecting this kind of outcry. Now everybody is mad at them, the people who supported the suspension and those who said it was wrong."
On Friday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of many conservatives to speak out in support of the TV family after the suspension, said he was pleased with the network's about-face.
"I am glad to hear that the folks at A&E came to their senses and recognized that tolerance of religious views is more important than political correctness," Jindal said in a statement. "Today is a good day for the freedoms of speech and religious liberty."
But more than outside pressure may have prompted the reversal. "Duck Dynasty" is a pivotal piece in the A&E business machine. The launch of the fourth season attracted almost 12 million viewers, according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched nonfiction broadcast ever on cable TV.
The channel, which is in 99 million homes, is expected to generate nearly $885 million in total revenue this year, according to consulting firm SNL Kagan. More than two-thirds of that comes from advertising, which is expected to increase 9% over last year. The remainder comes from subscriber fees that are part of consumers' monthly cable bills.
GLAAD officials released a statement Friday evening but would not comment on whether the gay rights group had participated in talks with the network about its decision to bring back Robertson.
"Phil Robertson should look African American and gay people in the eyes and hear about the hurtful impact of praising Jim Crow laws and comparing gay people to terrorists. If dialogue with Phil is not part of next steps then A&E has chosen profits over African American and gay people — especially its employees and viewers," GLAAD said.
The controversy flared last week after the network suspended the 67-year-old patriarch from the hit series in the wake of comments to GQ magazine. In that magazine interview, Robertson called gays "homosexual offenders" and said that before federal entitlement programs the black people he knew while growing up in rural Louisiana seemed "happy" and "no one was singing the blues."
Advocacy groups such as the NAACP and GLAAD immediately denounced the views, which became public Dec. 19, as backward and intolerant. The groups praised the network for acting swiftly in putting Robertson on "indefinite hiatus."
The network's initial move to sideline Robertson quickly became a cause celebre, particularly among right-wing commentators and politicians. In addition to Jindal, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and TV and radio host Glenn Beck urged executives to restore Robertson to the series, which is especially popular in middle America.
Days later, the Robertson family also struck back against the network, threatening to leave the series if their father was not allowed to rejoin them.
"We have had a successful working relationship with A&E, but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm," the Robertsons said in a statement.