‘Duck Dynasty’: Will ‘I Stand With Phil’ petition work?

‘Duck Dynasty’ patriarch, Phil Robertson, is the beneficiary of a petition that has gathered almost 250,000 signatures, in the wake of his controversial comments about gays. There’s been other pushback, too, to the condemnation of Mr. Robertson.

Matthew Hinton/AP
A sign in West Monroe, La., broadcasts support for Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the 'Duck Dynasty' series, Dec. 21. Robertson was suspended last week for disparaging comments he made to GQ magazine about gay people and African-Americans.

Will Phil Robertson be back on “Duck Dynasty” after all?

The suggestion by the bearded Louisiana duck-call entrepreneur that gays are akin to swindlers, drunkards, and adulterers – and the subsequent decision by A&E, partly owned by Disney, to put Mr. Robertson on hiatus – has generated lots of discussion, far beyond the show’s regular 14.8 million viewers.

Many commentators have said that such “vile” commentary can’t be accepted from those with a reality TV show pulpit. But Robertson’s defenders, in turn, have flexed their consumer muscle: An “I Stand With Phil” petition now has almost 250,000 signatures, and at least one business, Cracker Barrel, has apologized for withdrawing “Duck Dynasty” merchandise and has quickly put it back on the shelf.

“You flat out told us we were wrong. We listened.... [W]e apologize for offending you,” Cracker Barrel said on its Facebook page.

Last year, there was a similar consumer show of support for the chicken eatery Chick-fil-A after its CEO, Dan Cathy, was widely criticized for saying on a radio show, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’ ” On consumer-generated “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” franchises across the country were inundated with customers.

In the “Duck Dynasty” standoff, the stakes are high. The show’s cavalcade of redneck antics has generated nearly $500 million in merchandise and advertising sales since it first aired in the late winter of 2012. Now, the recent dispute constitutes an interesting quandary for the entertainment business – especially for Disney, a company that has allowed gay weddings at its resorts since 2007, thus providing fodder for a culture war over the legal and societal acceptance of homosexuality.

“You’ve got an America polarized on issues of sexual orientation, race, gender, all of which is tied into civil rights, and there are radicals on both sides of that fence,” says Rob Weiner, a pop culture expert at Texas Tech University. “But as in life, a reasonable path is the way to go, and there are consequences to what you say, whether it’s ‘Duck Dynasty’ or ‘American Idol.’ ”

Indeed, “Duck Dynasty” is hardly the first television show to engender controversy. Earlier this year, Food Network chef Paula Deen resigned after she defended past racist commentary during a court deposition. MSNBC also recently let go of liberal stalwarts Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir, after the men made what they acknowledged were inappropriate remarks.

But the “Duck Dynasty” case is different in that Robertson has not apologized (although he did say in a written statement that he, too, has sinned, and that he loves everybody like God loves everybody). Also, family members say they won’t do any more new shows (filming is set to start this spring) unless A&E brings Phil back, no questions asked.

“When big, powerful TV executives ask a star to apologize for what they deem inappropriate comments or behavior, the star simply complies,” writes Lee Habeeb, a Mississippi-based vice president at the Christian-themed Salem Radio Network. “But the TV gods never met a man like Phil Robertson. Or his family.”

“Duck Dynasty” was a sleeper hit, suggesting to some that it was a way for coastal elites to “feel progressive and enlightened by comparing themselves to simple country folks in Louisiana ...,” CNN contributor Ruben Navarrette writes.

According to a worldview held by some in this segment – and also held by many on Madison Avenue – A&E made exactly the right call in punishing Robertson.

"This is not different from Paula Deen," Michael Stone, head of New York-based brand-licensing agency Beanstalk, tells Bloomberg News. "I'm surprised that A&E has not pulled the entire show. The Food Network did the right thing."

But it turns out that A&E may have misread at least part of its core audience – America’s rural working class. They may chuckle but ultimately see themselves represented through the Robertsons in a respectful way – God-fearing, fun-loving, prayer-sharing Americans, many of whom do believe homosexuality is a biblical sin even though, as Robertson later pointed out, they still love the sinner.

Moreover, the Robertsons are hardly bumpkins, but gung-ho American entrepreneurs who unashamedly enjoy life according to the Bible – where killing for food is moral, where prayer is warming at the end of the day, and where there’s a right and a wrong.

And the family has made about $200,000 per episode.

Yet it’s unlikely Phil and the rest of the crew will blink. As Jase Robertson told GQ, there were three “no compromises” during negotiations with A&E. Those were “faith, betrayal of family members, and duck season.”

Even as A&E executives have banished Robertson, they have also tipped their hats: They decided to air a “Duck Dynasty” marathon over Christmas, raking in viewership from the controversy.

" 'Duck Dynasty' is A&E's biggest revenue generator and major viewer franchise," Porter Bibb, managing partner at Mediatech Capital Partners, a New York-based merchant bank, told Bloomberg. "America believes in second acts," he added, saying he believes Robertson "will be given another chance."

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