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Look who was wrong about the performance of "Duck Dynasty's" fifth season return last night: Me! I confidently predicted that the series - bolstered by controversy, a suspension, a reverse-suspension, and a nation full of angry "Duck Dynastiacs" - would come back last night big big BIG.
Instead, it just came back "big:" 8.5 million viewers, or down nearly 30 percent from last season's premiere.
(You'd actually be surprised - or not - how often I'm wrong - did you see my picks for the Golden Globes?)
So now we must go to theories behind doors no. 1., 2., and 3:
1.) The controversy really did hurt the show, and millions were turned off by Phil Robertson's comments in "GQ."
2.) It was all what is called an "echo chamber controversy" - yes millions of "Duck Dynastiacs" were angry, a few million Fox News Channel viewers, and lots of people who go to the Drudgereport.com. But the rest of the world - 95 percent of the rest of the world - didn't have a clue what was going on, and more to the point - didn't care what was going on.
3.) A&E didn't promote the return. I'm picking this theory - but again, caveat emptor. A&E barely promoted it at all, in fact. Did not bother to remind the press of its return, ran few on-air promos (I saw none), and otherwise went with the stealth launch approach, in the hopes that no one would dredge up all the business about Phil again.
We'll wait until next week's numbers to open a few more doors...
Here's what's gonna happen Wednesday at 10 when "Duck Dynasty" returns for its fifth season: About twenty-plus million people are going to drop whatever they are doing, turn to whatever channel A&E is on, and wonder what all the noise was about last month, when Robertson patriarch Phil Robertson was suspended, sparking a fan uproar that quickly forced A&E to reverse itself.
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The Robertson family released a statement a little while ago [Thursday night] with regards to Phil Robertson's suspension from "Duck Dynasty" -- and it appears ominous, at least for fans of the show. Yes, the statement decries the "coarse" language used by Robertson in the "GQ" interview, but the statement also indicates that the family is thinking about the future -- a future without "Duck Dynasty."
(As I mentioned in an earlier post, this "suspension" is utterly unworkable -- a bad idea made in haste by A&E and made reflexively. There is no conceivable way to suspend the star of his own "reality" show ... especially this reality show. Now, it appears as though the family is grappling with the same obvious issue. A&E simply should have distanced itself from his language with a statement along the lines of "we certainly don't condone what Phil said and in fact find it repugnant, but he does not represent the views of the network or our partners, and we in fact cannot control what he says in independent interviews which are unrelated to the show and A&E" ... or something along those lines.
Meanwhile, back to the statement. This could all be a lot of hot air too: Don't forget, the Robertsons went to the mat to get very significant raises last season. They are getting paid a fortune to do this show. My suspicion is that cooler heads may prevail, when the heat dies down. But who knows ...
The family statement:
We want to thank all of you for your prayers and support. The family has spent much time in prayer since learning of A&E's decision. We want you to know that first and foremost we are a family rooted in our faith in God and our belief that the Bible is His word. While some of Phil's unfiltered comments to the reporter were coarse, his beliefs are grounded in the teachings of the Bible. Phil is a Godly man who follows what the Bible says are the greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Phil would never incite or encourage hate. We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protected right. We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm. We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of Duck Dynasty. Again, thank you for your continued support of our family.
A&E on Wednesday suspended the Duck Commander, Phil Robertson, from one of the most popular "unscripted" series on TV, "Duck Dynasty" -- which you already knew -- but here's something no one does know about: How exactly will this work?
How does one "suspend" a character from a putative "unscripted" series where everything is putatively "unscripted" -- this is "reality" TV. One doesn't suspend "real" people, does one? Can "reality" be changed by a simple suspension? Does "reality" work that way?
(And how confused will people be when "Duck Dynasty" returns next January, with Phil still very much a part of the series because it was pretaped long before his comments to GQ, or the subsequent suspension?)
Needless to say, all of this sounds like a problem without a solution, and in fact, I suspect it's a problem within a problem. One problem that will beget another problem because none of this is what A&E signed up for, or thought it was signing up for: That a core character on one of the most popular series in its history -- make that the most popular -- uses words, terms and ideas that are anathema to discourse or the perception of what a TV network is supposed to be, which is all-inclusive, and not anti-gay.
Fact is, this is just one problem facing A&E, which I am convinced had hoped this would all go away, and which now hopes people will forget about this entirely in a few weeks, when he probably will be "reinstated."
That's right: Don't expect this suspension to last long, which is a reason A&E called it indefinite.
"Indefinite" could mean anything -- a day from now, a century from now. The word is utterly meaninglessly, and as such offers A&E an escape hatch.
"Oh he was suspended for months ...," the network might say upon reinstatement. Of course, the show hadn't taped over those months.
But let's say this is no hollow suspension, one of those slaps on the wrist. What then? Well ... you have a show that features a family of Robertsons, with one of them -- one of the most important of them, the Commander for crying out loud -- somewhere offstage.
"Where did the Commander go?," Si might muse.
Don't bet on it: Si will say something, but it won't be "happy, happy, happy!"
The idea of "Duck Dynasty" absent Phil is ludicrous: It's like "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" without Kim ... "The Bachelor" without the bachelor.
The other problems seem obvious to me, but are not so immediately apparent. Since fame and fortune have descended on the Robertsons, people want to know what they have to say, and Phil has had plenty to say, about Jesus, the Lord, salvation. (Willie's been out there, too.) He has strong beliefs and has made no effort to hide or disguise them, which is something A&E doesn't really want people or viewers to know about either.
See the clip below, with Phil in a candid moment, about how some of these beliefs have been edited out of the show. His comments here seem to me to indicate that the Robertsons have had plenty of other comments that never made the air, and it seems impossible to believe that he first expressed his repugnant thoughts about gays to GQ for the first time either.
(Phil, by the way, does point out here one of the great paradoxes of reality TV -- the cast of "Jersey Shore," for example, can talk about having sex in ways that beggar the meanng of the term "having sex" -- but if Jesus or religion is mentioned, the comment hits the editing floor faster 'n a duck hits the water.)
Robertson's absence on the show -- and as mentioned, I very much doubt there will be much of an absence at all -- could hurt "Duck" and A&E in another fundamental way: That he has been excised because of his beliefs.
I have long suspected that "Duck" has been such a huge hit -- besides the fact that it can be amusing -- because this show is about people who live in The Rest of America: Those who believe in absolutely everything Phil Robertson believes in, up to and including how the perfect duck whistle should be made, and who believe that sin and evil have consumed popular culture ... with this one exception.
So yes, A&E has a big problem, and is hoping -- praying, yes praying -- that all of you forget about it as soon as possible.
Newsday app readers please head on over to newsday.com/tvzone to watch the clip.