The “Duck Dynasty” flap: a view from a non-fan of the show

Originally I was going to just let this one fly by like a black brant headed to Mexico. But I think there have been enough people vocally claiming a First Amendment violation that it’s time to weigh in.

First, in case you’ve missed this or live outside the US (many of these links will contain offensive material):

Executive summary: Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty gives an interview to GQ Magazine (owned by Conde Nast Publications, not Hearst as originally stated by one source). A+E Networks (owners of the cable channel A&E, a joint venture of Hearst Corporation and Disney-ABC Television Group, and no I have no idea why the corporate name has a plus sign instead of an ampersand) gets wind of it, the executives go nuts and place Phil Robertson on “indefinite hiatus” from the show. Right-wing fans of the show claim infringements of First Amendment free speech rights, Cracker Barrel pulls Duck Dynasty merchandise only to put it right back on the shelves after the show’s fans threaten a boycott. Finally, A+E Networks reverses the original decision, and since the show wasn’t even producing new episodes anyway, the “indefinite hiatus” amounts to no hiatus at all.

Let’s start with the original GQ interview and A+E Networks’ reaction. First, I consider Mr. Robertson’s remarks to be in egregiously poor taste. I don’t know why anyone who is on television as part of a nationally cablecast program would think it was a good idea to say these kinds of things in a magazine interview. I am forced to conclude that Mr. Robertson simply doesn’t give a shit.

So it’s not surprising that the brass at A+E Networks did what they did. And they had the right to decide who and what they wanted to air on their television network. The same way I can decide exactly what to post on my blog, and what comments make it. I’ve been pretty liberal, but I have edited comments for publication in the past.

What does surprise me is that the same largely conservative fan base is willing to attack A+E Networks for infringing on freedom of speech, as if it’s Mr. Robertson’s right to be on television. It’s not his show nor his network. It was a given that some other network somewhere would pick up either Duck Dynasty itself or start a new show starring the Robertson family and the duck call business. (Probably one of the Fox-owned networks, given the slant of Fox Noise Ch– I mean Fox News Channel.)

The latest articles I’ve read imply that A+E Networks has painted themselves into a corner, and they can’t win no matter what. Not to mention, at least one former production assistant claims the show is fake ( Which is perhaps the biggest fraud of them all, if he’s right.

A show billed as a reality show should actually reflect reality. Deadliest Catch, for example, does its best to reflect the reality of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Minimal editing is done except to remove profanity and for legal reasons (blurring/beeping out the identifying information of boats and people who have not signed agreements to be on the show). Nothing is scripted. Cops is perhaps the gold standard in reality television; if not the first, it’s certainly the longest running series in the genre and perhaps the show that helped define it. I’m not saying “gold standard” because I like the show, but because it’s the best example of how a reality show should be made.

Reality (unscripted) television is fine. I have no problem with reality television itself. Reality game shows are fine (Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, etc). Scripted television is fine and has its place. But it’s just not right to call something a reality show when it’s really scripted. If this is what A+E Networks is doing, this is a much bigger problem, to me, than any mishandling of Mr. Robertson and his interview with GQ. I would hate to see something happen to reality television along the lines of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. But if it takes a Congressional investigation to clean things up, then let’s have one and start the cleanup now.