Ah, December 2013. Do you remember? It was during that quiet week just before Christmas when the Internet suddenly whipped itself into a frenzy when a reality star gave a controversial interview to a magazine. It was a particular lightning rod because it involved A&E’s inescapable reality show “Duck Dynasty,” the cultural phenomenon about Louisiana duck call manufacturers that shattered cable ratings records.
Phil Robertson, a 68-year-old self-proclaimed “Bible thumper” and patriarch of A&E’s massively popular reality show family, gave an interview to GQ magazine. He proclaimed homosexuality a sin, comparable to bestiality, and also made some crude remarks about race relations and crass ones about women. The backlash was swift and severe: Gay-rights groups condemned his “vile” comments. A&E suspended Robertson. Politicians jumped into the fray and defended Robertson, eager to gain points with the show’s supporters by citing free speech. His family refused to do the show without him.
So much fury swelled during the entire situation that it propelled “Duck Dynasty” to ever new heights of popularity — especially when A&E backed down and reversed Robertson’s suspension a week later. Could anything stop this family’s reign?
As it turned out — yes. Now, exactly a year later, no one really cares about “Duck Dynasty” anymore.
For a show that experienced such a huge level of fame, it was a shockingly quick downfall — even a for reality TV show, which tend to flame out fairly quickly. The Robertsons, already successful entrepreneurs based on their duck call business, had smartly built everyone’s fascination with their quirky group into reported $400 million empire: Clothes, a top-selling holiday CD, hunting gear and everything else you could imagine. Plus, the requisite cameos on sitcoms and at award shows.
But while they may remain in fine shape financially . . . their ratings? Not great. About 2.6 million people tuned in to the “Duck Dynasty” Season 7 debut this past November, the lowest premiere audience since the pilot. By contrast, approximately 11.7 million watched the Season 4 opener in August 2013, at the time the most-watched cable reality show episode in history. That was after the cast predictably demanded higher salaries ($200,000 an episode, according to the Hollywood Reporter), realizing how valuable a property the show had become to A&E.
Ratings declined from there. Observers noted that after the Phil controversy, ratings dipped to about 8.5 million for the Season 5 premiere, and dropped to 6 million for that season’s finale. It’s been a slow decline since then, all the way to last month’s meager showing.
What happened? Frankly, the Robertsons’ drift away from their show and onto side projects was reflected in the audience’s attention span. Which should be fine. After all, as we’ve detailed here before, the whole point of doing a reality show is to catapult you to bigger and better things. The Robertsons have that now: They have their increasing line of businesses, such as the latest with the Robertson wives (Korie, Jessica, Missy) launching a line of handbags.
Besides racking up the merchandise sales, the most press the family has gotten all year was because Willie and Korie’s 17-year-old daughter, Sadie, competed in ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Of course, the show brought up her family at any and all times, and her parents were frequently in the audience. (A common storyline: What would her conservative dad, Willie, think of her “Dancing” costumes?!) Despite admittedly having no dancing experience, she made it all the way to the finale and came in second place.
That shows that the Robertsons still have fans — “DWTS” is partially fan-voted. But not all of those people are tuning into “Duck Dynasty” (which returns with new episodes on Jan. 7), their lifeblood in the first place. However, now that it’s clear that the Robertsons have outgrown the series that launched them to fame, it’s a good lesson to remember for aspiring reality stars: A show makes you famous, and it can very quickly become the least important part of your legacy.