Late last year, the Robertson family of the cable TV smash "Duck Dynasty" waded into a treacherous swamp.
Outrage exploded after Phil Robertson, the show's long-bearded patriarch, called homosexuality a sin and denied seeing black people mistreated in the pre-civil rights Deep South. A&E, the family's network home, swiftly suspended Phil; the Louisiana family that built its fortune on duck-hunting calls shot back that they wouldn't continue the show without him. As fans and conservative commentators gathered on Twitter to #StandWithPhil, the future of the No. 1 reality TV show in cable history looked in doubt.
Seven months later, all that drama seems as distant as a long-ago hunting trip. A&E rescinded Phil's suspension after just nine days. "Duck Dynasty" is still a hit, albeit one with ratings about one-third the size of their peak of nearly 12 million viewers last year, according to Nielsen.
A&E continues its lucrative merchandising partnership with the Robertsons, piling up licensed products including beef jerky and hand warmers at Wal-Marts and other stores across the nation. The tie-ins were estimated by Forbes to be worth $400 million last year alone, although one industry analyst says the business has likely tapered since then (a network spokesman said it would not comment on financials).
The media controversy has washed away like mud on waders.
"It's a strong, strong franchise and will continue for a number of years," said David McKillop, executive vice president and general manager of A&E Networks, in an interview.
As for the dust-up last December, he added: "I don't think there's any definitive proof that the controversy itself had an impact on the ratings. These things tend to burn very, very bright and then begin to settle into a plateau."
The strange saga of "Duck Dynasty" illustrates how in today's over-saturated media market, reality TV — much like Internet outrage — is a highly perishable commodity.
"These kinds of 'reality' shows based on unique or unusual people usually don't have great staying power," said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. "'Once viewers have seen the personalities and their lifestyles, the audiences tend to move along… 'Duck Dynasty' has already beaten the odds by getting into Season 6." The season finale is scheduled to air Aug. 13.
A&E says that Season 7 is already in the can and, according to McKillop, the network is "absolutely" mulling possible spinoffs in the future. (The "Duck Dynasty" clan originally appeared on a different series on the Outdoor Channel.)
The Robertson family — despite whatever tension may have existed with A&E after the suspension — seems onboard.
"We are continuously blown away at the overwhelming response from our fans, and as long as they continue to enjoy the show and its message, we'll bring them more to watch," Willie Robertson, Phil's 42-year-old son and the chief of its Duck Commander business, wrote in a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times.
By any yardstick, "Duck Dynasty" has enjoyed extraordinary success. It is part of a wave of reality series, such as "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and "Breaking Amish," that look at odd subcultures across the U.S., giving viewers a peek at lifestyles previously seldom seen in the mainstream media.
The large Robertson clan is led by 68-year-old Phil, a former collegiate star quarterback in the 1960s and self-described "redneck from Louisiana" who famously turned down an NFL contract because of concern it would interfere with his time for hunting. Willie runs the duck-call business that his father started.
A&E has constructed the series as a homespun, slightly goofy reality sitcom that celebrates the Robertsons' traditional family values even as it gawps at their backwoods way of life. This clan could be thought of as an antidote to the superficiality and base instincts on display in the "Real Housewives" franchise, and their show underscores the idea that humble origins are no barrier to success in America.
The March 2012 premiere logged a modest 1.8 million total viewers, but the series built a sizable audience. By early 2013 it was regularly drawing more than 8 million viewers. Then the Season 4 premiere a year ago smashed cable records by delivering an astounding 11.8 million.
The ratings were accompanied by a giant merchandising push. Wal-Mart stocked its shelves with all kinds of "Duck Dynasty"-branded products that fans eagerly snapped up. The Robertsons even recorded a Christmas album, "Duck the Halls," with guest appearances from country superstars Luke Bryan and George Strait.
"It's not routine for any show to sell that level of merchandise," said Ira Mayer, the publisher of the Licensing Letter, which follows the licensed products industry. "It had a huge following and a lot of word of mouth … Wal-Mart went in really strong."
But that turned out to be the high-water mark. Ratings began sliding and for the season finale — weeks before the controversy over Phil's remarks in a GQ interview — "Duck Dynasty" was back down to 8.9 million. The Season 5 premiere in January scored 8.4 million — suggesting that the uproar had little if any effect on viewership. The series was simply continuing a natural decline that started months before.
Mayer said that "Duck Dynasty" has, for all its ubiquity, failed to become a lifestyle brand — as, say, the Kardashians have become. Instead, the show represents another type of phenomenon familiar to anyone who follows pop culture. "Fads are what they are," he said.
A&E meanwhile took heat for its handling of the crisis. Critics said the suspension, followed by the quick reinstatement, made the network look wishy-washy. Phil's supporters wondered why the network was airing "Duck Dynasty" at all if it was not comfortable with the family's views, which they have openly expressed in many forums. (Among other things, Phil is a sometime Christian preacher whose sermons are readily available on YouTube.) Unlike most TV personalities caught in the glare of a media scandal, Phil did not apologize for his comments and said he was merely quoting from the Scriptures.
But A&E executives are not looking back. "The controversy is not what the show is about," McKillop said.
In any case, the network does not appear to have suffered much.
Advertisers looked more closely at the show after Phil's interview broke, but none pulled out, according to McKillop.
"That kind of speaks for itself," he said.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday