Duck Disaster

I don’t watch much television these days unless the letters N, F, and L are prominently involved, but even I am dimly aware that Duck Dynasty is a huge phenomenon. A show has to have made the big time to take up a good portion of a display wall at Calendar Club all by itself during the Christmas retail rush.

Of course, as many know, controversy overtook Duck Dynasty this week. Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Robertson family of duck-call manufacturers, was quoted in GQ magazine making remarks that were perceived to be disparaging towards gays. The A&E channel, which produces and airs the series, quickly condemned the elder Robertson’s remarks and they announced that he would be taking an extended hiatus from appearing on the show.

If you have enough people on Facebook or Twitter, you’re bound to see an outcry about this decision start appearing in your newsfeeds. The accusations about thought police, political correctness overreach, oversensitivity, and the spinelessness of A&E will fly. It will be argued that the Robertsons have never made any bones about their Christian worldview; the talk about what is and isn’t sinful is just an extension of that. Phil should have the right to say what he believes.

And you know, they’re absolutely correct. Phil Robertson should be free to talk about his faith, and his personal beliefs—however unpopular or unappealing they may be to some—if he chooses to do so.

Except he kind of was able to do that, now wasn’t he? The outcry isn’t over him being denied the opportunity to express his views, rather it’s over the punitive measures he now faces for doing so. But that being the case, it needs to be remembered that there is a difference between the meanings of censor and censure. Freedom of speech doesn’t always mean free from consequences.

Phil Robertson has a right to free expression, but the companies he associates with also have the right of free enterprise. Duck Dynasty isn’t the public square; it’s a corporately produced TV program.  Insofar as the show is concerned, Phil Robertson is an employee of A&E. And you can wager that he has a contract that stipulates that he not engage in behaviour or make comments that could prove injurious to the program, cause it to lose sponsors and so forth.  A&E foots the bill; they get to make the calls. Furthermore, Phil isn’t being denied free speech because he has plenty of other avenues available to him. He could express himself through self-produced webisodes or he could crowd-fund his own series if he convinced enough of his pissed-off fans to pony up some cash for it.  

From a crisis management standpoint, A&E has handled this situation well. They demonstrated moral leadership by being decisive about removing a key figure from one of their top properties, and they were unequivocal about condemning statements that were out of step with their corporate values. Which is wise, because shows come and go in popularity, and today’s first family of reality TV can be tomorrow’s Trivial Pursuit answer—to wit: the Osbourne family. But people remember how media outlets comport themselves.

A&E’s swift response also earned some quick praise from GLAAD, which quickly became part of the story. And by phrasing the elder Robertson’s departure as “a hiatus”, they left the door open for his eventual return.

Which is probably what will happen. I don’t know if Phil Robertson will find his way on to the “contrition and apology” circuit, but I imagine that even if he doesn’t he’ll be back on Duck Dynasty after some time has passed. And I’m sure most fans of the show will welcome him back, just as most will keep watching while he is gone.

However, any show with an audience as big as Duck Dynasty’s almost certainly counts some gay, lesbian, and bisexuals amongst its viewers. Not to mention liberal-minded fans and even Christians who would prefer to see their faith served up with a more tolerant outlook. Will they remain onboard as watchers? It’s likely that many will, despite some reservations.

Still, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this is a breakpoint for the program. It will keep going, but for many its charm won’t ever be quite the same. It’s even possible there will be a few less Robertson clan calendars, bobbleheads, and books on sale in mall end-caps come next Christmas-time.

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