How Cable TV's Ascendancy Explains the Duck Dynasty Culture War

Robertson in A&E's Duck Dynasty Photograph by Karolina Wojtasik/A&E

It’s a great time to be in the flush cable-TV industry—at least until you start suspending your talent. Then the business gets uncomfortable fast.

Over the past year, backlashes surrounding the suspension or firing of cable-TV talent over controversial remarks—ranging from Food Network’s dismissal of Paula Deen to MSNBC’s axing of Alec Baldwin—have moved to the front and center of America’s culture wars. This week’s frenzy surrounding A&E’s suspension of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson over anti-gay remarks he made in GQ magazine has taken TV’s human resource wars to new heights.

The upcoming fifth season of Duck Dynasty, which will begin airing in January, has already finished shooting. As a result, the suspension will have exactly zero impact on the short-term dynamics of the show. Nevertheless, everywhere you look over the past 24 hours, people with seemingly little stake in the cable-TV industry have been sounding off feverishly on A&E’s casting decision.

The contours of this ferocious debate are sure to be familiar to anyone who has followed the recent sagas surrounding Deen and Baldwin. Conservatives will see in A&E’s actions evidence of a double standard in the media by which TV executives vehemently support free speech, unless the controversial viewpoints happen to upset liberals. In the meantime, progressives will frame the suspension in terms of civil rights and being on the correct side of history. Through it all, TV executives will be caught in the middle, trying to muddle through a fervor that’s ultimately fueled by the same thing as their fat profit margins: the current ascendency of cable-TV programming in American life.

Can you imagine us getting this worked up about anything in literature? For better or worse, cable TV is one of the few cultural languages that most everyone in America currently speaks. As a result, cable now offers an unparalleled opportunity for people trying to influence the direction of American cultural norms—be it Sarah Palin, or GLAAD—to escalate singular instances involving cable-TV personalities into sweeping manifestos about proper civic behavior and what it means to be American.

Appropriately enough, all of this plays out most furiously on cable-TV news, proving the medium’s near perfect ability to co-opt a flicker of controversy wherever it first appears—in a magazine (thanks, GQ!), a newspaper, or in social media—and quickly fan it into a raging, national fire.

If there’s any source of comfort for cable-TV executives—in this case, A&E Networks head Nancy Dubuc, whom I profiled in June—it’s the fact that the importance of the overarching cultural issues tends to obscure just how fleeting the business stakes are for the networks involved.

Cable stars rise and fall as part of a continuous, regenerating cycle. The medium creates them, chews them up, spits them out, and replaces them, over and over again. Thanks to their platform on A&E, the cast of Duck Dynasty is currently enjoying a moment of massive popularity. Perhaps, as they have suggested in recent days, the stars of the show will choose to abandon A&E over Robertson’s suspension. More likely—inevitable, really—is that cable TV audiences will some day abandon Duck Dynasty. So, too, will A&E.

Reality TV churns out so many controversies and inspires so many boycotts that the outrage is practically baked into the model. If every controversy left a lasting stain on a network, there would be nobody left watching TV. So far, we’re all still watching.

Eventually, the Robertsons will return to their lives, pre-A&E—which is to say that they’ll return to being a niche act for a niche audience whose niche views on such things as gay rights will be targeted only to people with similar views and will thus be largely ignored by the rest of us.

“If you put aside the ideology, the fact is that a brand like this just doesn’t have a very long lifespan,” says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “These kinds of things burn very brightly and then they cease to do so. Right now Duck Dynasty is a very big deal. It won’t last forever.”

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