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.
Many won't stick around, but many will, providing some evidence - misguided as it may be - that the suspension was a publicity stunt designed to boost TV's biggest non-music unscripted series even more, especially on the same night "American Idol" was set to return.
Don't worry conspiricists - you are wrong. This was nothing of the sort but an episode I've taken to calling A&E's Bungle in the Bayou - a suspension that A&E knew was unworkable and unenforceable but simply never anticipated the sort of reaction it would engender. But in the ensuing uproar, it learned.
Much still needs to be reported out on this - what exactly happened and why. Robertson made some comments published in a GQ article that were instantly viewed as homophobic, and A&E, in a meeting with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation quickly assumed it had defused the backlash by agreeing to a "suspension" – a ridiculous suspension, given that you could not exactly suspend one of the stars of the biggest series in A&E history from his own show, and that much of the fifth season had already been taped anyway.
Which meant - what? That when taping resumed, Phil would simply be "gone” - say, maybe on a duck hunting expedition to Siberia?
Or would the family members would sit around Duck Commander headquarters musing about how the Duck Commander's daddy had been bounced by the network for saying stuff about gays and African Americans?
This was a foolish move made by some smart people who run a successful network - and one that could have ultimately damaged the single biggest franchise this legacy cable network ever created. But how much was this A&E's decision? That remains a question too because A&E has other masters, notably one of the owners, Disney, which is now deeply sensitive to issues relating to gay rights; Disney World even supports "Gay Days," celebrating the LGBT community (in June.)
What pressure did Disney put on A&E to enact a suspension? That's unknown.. But A&E did reverse itself, and Robertson never missed a second of shooting.
What will the impact be on the show? That's an interesting question too because some of those twenty-plus million who arrive tonight will wonder what all the fuss was about - this kindly, laconic, funny, graybeard said what?!
Hardcore fans may not look at Phil the same way either: They now won't think of him as just "Phil," but maybe some sort of strangely messianic figure who speaks truth to power, says what they think about gays, and who stands up against all the evils of liberal America, and all those east coasters who would subvert their God-given rights to speak their minds.
To them, Phil is a political figure - no longer a figure of comic relief, or sort of the Buddy Ebsen/Jed Clampett type who deadpans for the camera when Si says something crazy...
A&E could unwittingly turned him into a culture warrior, and the show along with him. No longer a harmless and amusing diversion, to watch and love "Duck Dynasty" could even mean Taking a Stand - odd as that may sound.
Or to love this show could mean being branded a homophobe ...
(The more likely outcome is that everyone will forget what happened and go back to watching their favorite diversion, as if nothing ever happened. )
Should ol' Phil take some blame here too? Yeah, absolutely. What he said was hurtful, brutal, cruel. He said this to a national magazine and said it knowing that he is a major star and that major stars are best counseled to keep their own opinions to themselves.
Of course, the problem here is that Phil has said much of this before - in public forums, maybe even in his books (I haven't read 'em). He's not a Hollywood phony, after all - he says what he thinks, and A&E knew exactly what he thought long before the GQ article.
Damage has been done, and now all A&E can hope for is that everyone will forget about what happened. They won't but a network can hope. Tonight's launch may be one of those rare cases in TV history when the network doesn't really want anyone but fans to watch. The sign at the start may as well say, "no drive-by viewers, please." That won't happen either.
A clip of the new season ... (Newsday app readers go to Newsday.com/tvzone to watch...)