It’s no contest when it comes to bucks vs. bigotry in the world of TV ratings
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 01/02/2014
A&E Television Network’s decision to continue “Duck Dynasty” was never in doubt. In fact, the surprise was that A&E officials even went through the charade of momentarily canning the show’s patriarch, Phil Robertson. “Duck Dynasty,” quite simply, is a business, first and foremost. The lifeblood of A&E and, indeed, any other TV network is business, one that is always defined solely as bringing in advertising cash.
After Robertson was temporarily dumped, A&E floated a trial balloon to see just how big a hit it would take if it kept Robertson cooling his broadcast heels for any prolonged length of time. The network plopped hour after hour of “Duck Dynasty” reruns on in primetime slots on Christmas Day. The ratings went through the roof. That instantly translated into more cash in ad revenue. The ad-dollar bonanza from the one-day marathon almost certainly gave a huge bump to the $80 million in advertising the network had already bagged off the show through the first nine months of 2013. That, by the way, was even more than the show brought in the previous year, all topped by the more than $400 million the show generates in merchandise sales.
A&E had a good idea of just how big the take would be from the Robertson flap and the short-lived decision to shove him aside. A “Boycott A&E over Robertson” page on Facebook had nearly 2 million likes. The campaign to browbeat the network was bolstered by legions of petitions and saber-rattling against the network from the likes of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and countless local GOP officials. Their rants against the network were the standard fare about an assault on freedom of speech, political correctness run amok and alleged caving to the tyranny of the minority, using the bigoted comments of Robertson against gays and blacks — actual minorities — to make their points.
Presumably this was the reason why A&E made the decision to put Robertson on ice for a moment in the first place. But A&E’s decision to quickly scrap its suspension of Robertson was more than just a business decision based on the wild popularity of one show; it reflected the brutal reality of a commercial media that repeatedly puts dollars over bigotry. This was never more apparent than in the furor over the presumed canning by CBS of shock jock Don Imus in 2006 over racially inflammatory cracks.
The Imus flap, as with A&E and Robertson, told much about why virtually anyone in the dollar-obsessed media can prattle off foul remarks about gays, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Muslims and women and skip away with a caressing hand slap. They, of course, ramp up ratings and that makes a station’s cash registers jingle. Imus’ MSNBC show drew an average of more than 350,000 viewers. Nielsen Media Research noted that it was a leap from the prior year. He was soon back on the air.
The other reason why it’s virtually impossible to permanently muzzle anyone who talks homophobic and race trash is the sphinx-like silence of top politicians, broadcast industry leaders and corporate sponsors. Or worse, with Robertson, their headlong rush to defend these people and their remarks on the always self-serving “free speech” ground.
Whether it was Imus a few years back or Robertson today, the networks always cover their backsides with this by now-template ploy. They loudly announce that the offender has been properly punished, got the message and solemnly promises to mend his or her bigoted ways. Robertson followed the script to a tee and publicly stated that he regretted the language and, of course, would never be the purveyor of hate and intolerance. This was more than enough for A&E to bury the hatchet and move on.
There’s even an added cash bonus for the network in the show’s return. It can now point with pride to the show as a prime example of a lesson learned, a win-win, as some have crowed about the decision to rescind Robertson’s suspension. The one win is that the ratings for the show likely will soar even higher with even more ad dollars pouring in and merchandise sales continuing to skyrocket. The other win is that the network can boast that it took a stand, fleeting as it was, against bigotry, and that it can now take pride in that the series’ star player publicly pledged to do the same.
A&E, Robertson and the legion of “Duck Dynasty” fans happily pat themselves on their collective backs for supposedly putting the ugly episode behind them and going forward. Yet, they are predictably stone silent on why Robertson was briefly dumped at all, namely over the horrific bigotry that he openly displayed, and that millions openly or tacitly defended. But this doesn’t merit a scant afterthought when the issue is bucks versus bigotry. It’s no contest in the ratings and ad world which one will always win out. n
Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a frequent MSNBC contributor and an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Network and hosts of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KTYM AM 1460 radio in Los Angeles and KPFK-FM 90.7 radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.