A&E put itself between a “Duck” and a hard place. And having backtracked from its temporary lack of quack, let the public-relations scrambling begin.
The network might have acted precipitously in suspending Phil Robertson for his inflammatory remarks regarding gays (and equally insensitive ones about African-Americans in the Jim Crow-era South), but it clearly didn’t have an end game in mind. And once the network demonstrated that it was displeased with Robertson’s statements, unless it was truly willing to strangle its golden goose, there was really nowhere to go from there.
So the network issued a mealy-mouthed statement Friday, promising to run a public-service campaign about tolerance and inclusiveness. One suspects the network will also be less eager to arrange interview opportunities for Robertson, which of course won’t prevent him from going out and speaking his mind, especially now that he’s a hero to many conservatives.
After all, if this episode proves anything, it’s that faced with the possibility of derailing its top-rated series, the channel has webbed feet of clay.
To reiterate the obvious, those who turned this into a free speech crusade clearly had a political agenda. Robertson had every right to express his opinions, and the network was free to distance itself from those remarks – and from him – if they felt his statements, as someone affiliated with A&E, damaged its brand and image.
That said, there are a few lessons here, beginning with the fact that networks responsible for reality TV shows get into bed with people of questionable beliefs and character all the time. Witness CBS’ embarrassment this summer over racist comments made by contestants on “Big Brother.”
A&E also appeared not to anticipate the blowback from those who share Robertson’s views, and how suspending him would be perceived among religious conservatives who already feel besieged by popular culture. Beyond making up a disproportionate share of the “Duck Dynasty” audience, such people also regularly complain about having relatively few options on TV where the “characters” profess to share their values.
Of course, reinstating Robertson won’t put the issue to rest. Indeed, advocacy groups who object to his participation in the program will no doubt have a word or two to share with A&E’s advertisers. And that, too, is their right.
While the impact of such campaigns is generally limited, time is not on “Duck Dynasty’s” side – or for that matter, on Robertson’s. People grow tired of reality shows sooner or later, and the tide of social conservatism Robertson espoused in regard to gays is also in gradual retreat, particularly if the views of younger people are any guide.
As for A&E, the network clearly misjudged the volatility of the culture wars — as well as the intoxicating media allure of mixing a popular TV show with political controversy — while demonstrating the tension that can exist between picking your friends and picking your reality-TV stars.
Because once A&E decided to do more than simply say “We do not share Phil’s views,” there was almost no way to escape this mess without winding up with egg on its face.