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Network quiet amid petitions calling for boycott over 'Duck Dynasty' move

CNN
Saturday, December 21, 2013 - 4:00pm

While boycott petitions against "Duck Dynasty" home A&E take off, the network itself is staying quiet.

Since its Wednesday decision to "indefinitely" suspend Phil Robertson, one of the stars of its highly rated reality series, A&E has yet to publicly clarify what the future of the show might be, what they'll do with their block of reruns, or even what it really means to be "indefinitely" suspended.

The network's lack of communication has done nothing to stem the tide of detractors who strongly disagree with its decision to put Robertson on the bench over remarks quoted in GQ magazine, in which he called homosexuality a sin, citing the Bible. A Change.org petition demanding that Robertson be reinstated and the network issue an apology was steadily climbing toward 100,000 signatures Friday.

A separate petition at a website called IStandWithPhil.com makes a similar appeal. Hosted by the online community Faith Driven Consumers, the website helps its members spend their money with companies that fall in line with their spiritual beliefs. The petition on IStandWithPhil.com had surpassed 130,000 signatures by Friday evening.

Those who've signed the IStandWithPhil.com petition are asking for their "views (to) be treated with equality and respect in America's rich rainbow of diversity," and for the "network to immediately reinstate Mr. Robertson to 'Duck Dynasty,' and to formally apologize to him, his family, and the millions of viewers who tune in every week, stand by him, and share his worldview."

"While the LGBT community may be offended by his opposing viewpoint," that webstite continues, "your rash, discriminatory, and unfair treatment toward Mr. Robertson -- a recognized symbol of the faith community -- is a slap in the face to Faith Driven Consumers and everyday Americans alike."

Both websites are urging people not to watch A&E programming in the meantime.

So far, the number of petitioners doesn't compare with the millions that "Duck Dynasty" has drawn to A&E -- its fourth-season premiere in August set a record with 11.8 million watching, and the season finale in October brought in 8.4 million -- but those signatures would give any network exec flop sweat. Especially when the rest of the Robertson family has stoked the fire with a statement that suggests the future of the show might be in jeopardy.

"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," the family said in a statement. "We are in discussions with A&E to see what that means for the future of 'Duck Dynasty.'"

According to CNN Senior Media Correspondent Brian Stelter, conventional wisdom in the industry holds that this current disagreement between A&E and the family will resolve itself in time, in part because the two sides benefit so much from being in business with the other. A person with close ties to A&E noted that the Robertson family is under contract, thereby reducing the chances that the family will show up on another channel anytime soon.

An A&E executive who spoke to Stelter on condition of anonymity, because the channel was avoiding any new public comments about the controversy, said that conversations with the Robertson family would likely resume after the Christmas holiday.

"Everybody just needs to take a breath," the executive said.

The A&E executive insisted that there has been no second-guessing at the channel about the decision to suspend Phil Robertson.

All of which gives rise to the question: What would happen to A&E were "Duck Dynasty" to go away? This is, after all, the show that helped the network to raise its total viewership 10% this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Stelter can't see the Robertsons or A&E wanting to end the televised hunting-business fun so soon, but if it were to happen, it would undoubtedly be a blow to the network, he said.

"There's just nothing else on the channel that's nearly as popular as new episodes of 'Duck Dynasty,'" Stelter said. "It would be like AMC losing new episodes of 'The Walking Dead' or like Fox losing 'American Idol.' That's why it is very, very unlikely. The show is hugely important for the channel and for the family. Not just Phil, but the whole family," which, Stelter notes, isn't affected by the suspension.

Given that Robertson is "a main character" on the fifth season, which is scheduled to premiere January 15, Stelter believes the increased attention thanks to the uproar might even give "Duck Dynasty" a ratings boost in 2014.

But if something were to happen to the show in the long run, then yes, A&E would certainly need to regroup.

On the other hand, it's not like the network hasn't bounced back before -- and it's never been a one-show network. Over the past 10 years alone, it's transitioned from being the prime place to find a rerun of "Biography" to the home of the Emmy-winning "Intervention," to the site of reality shows like "Storage Wars" as well as original programming like "Bates Motel."

In October, A&E unveiled a new branding strategy centered around the tagline "Be Original." The campaign, The Hollywood Reporter noted at the time, was scheduled to debut during -- what else? -- a "Duck Dynasty" special on December 11.

And yet, as industry trade Variety emphasizes, it is not unusual for a network to make a bold move in severing ties with a controversial figure, no matter how popular. MSNBC bid adieu to Alec Baldwin after the actor fired off another unprintable outburst at a photographer, and the Food Network declined to renew its contract with one of its most well-known personalities, Paula Deen, after she admitted to using the "N" word in the past.

A&E itself previously put another fan-favorite reality star, Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, on hiatus after he used a racial slur.

With its response to the "Duck Dynasty" situation, the network "has been able to establish its progressive corporate values, maintain its relationship with advertisers, and not collapse an entire reality show in the process," Variety TV reporter AJ Marechal observes. "The bullet wasn't entirely dodged, but it at least didn't hit a main artery." 

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