SAN DIEGO — The Chinese calendar says that 2013 was the Year of the Snake. But given the recent media ruckus involving a dynasty closer to home and how it all turned out, it is clear that the recently departed 2013 could have been called the Year of the Duck.
You’ll recall that the A&E network made a big production of the fact that it was placing “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson “under hiatus from filming indefinitely” after he – in paraphrasing a Bible verse during an interview with GQ magazine – appeared to compare homosexuality with bestiality. Just as troubling, he also seemed to minimize the mistreatment that African-Americans suffered in the South before the civil rights movement.
Whether you agree with these thoughts or not – and I don’t – this isn’t our first duck hunt. We know that when celebrities say or do the wrong thing, they can often escape a trip to the principal’s office if they issue a statement of apology and promise to make amends.
Robertson refused to play along, claiming that his comments on homosexuality were based on religious beliefs. So the network was stuck in the unenviable position of having benched the star of its biggest hit with no face-saving way of bringing him back.
After that, it was open season on A&E as supporters of the show, which pulls down an average of 14.6 million viewers each week when you count those who record it, threatened a boycott and launched several petitions demanding Robertson’s reinstatement.
They needn’t have bothered. The defining moment in this drama came when the rest of the Robertson family issued a statement, just one day after the suspension was announced. They signaled that the show, which is built around the family and its business manufacturing supplies for duck hunters, would not go on without Phil.
This was an example of how things aren’t usually done in Hollywood. Often, when a star is dumped from a series, the other actors move up and take his place. So they’re only too happy to see him go. Not this time. When the network wasn’t able to divide and conquer the talent, it had to face for the first time the possibility of killing the duck that laid the golden egg. According to media reports based on interviews with people within the network, this was never a consideration.
And so, just nine days after the A&E suspended Robertson, the cable channel caved.
Two days after Christmas, when few Americans are paying attention to the news, A&E announced that the suspension was lifted and that Robertson would be included in future tapings of the popular reality show.
We could have seen this coming. Just a few days earlier, Entertainment Weekly reported that – starting Jan. 15 – the network was planning to air new episodes of the show that would include scenes featuring Robertson. These new episodes were already in the can, so the network bosses could claim they had no choice but to air them – and make a bundle of money in advertising revenue. The issue was what A&E would do about episodes that were yet to be taped. Now we know what the choice was – profits over principle.
The network did say that it also planned to “use this moment” to broadcast public service announcements “promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people.”
For some, the ending was a little too tidy. One theory making the rounds is that this whole thing was an elaborate publicity stunt that was pulled off brilliantly and will likely result in even bigger ratings, and thus more profits, when the new season starts later this month.
But assuming this was real, and all this really unfolded just the way it appears, then it’s a victory – and not just for one colorful Louisiana family and their fans. The winners also include those Americans who bristled at the idea that people can’t have opinions anymore if they happen to diverge from the politically correct party line.
The Robertsons are fond of the Bible. If you’re looking for a good parable to describe what they just went through, you won’t do better than David and Goliath.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at [email protected]