A&E's "Duck Dynasty" is not just the most popular reality show on cable TV. It's a rallying point for middle America, proof that down-home folks from the backcountry can make good and become mega-stars.
And now it's become the latest battleground in America's culture wars.
Phil Robertson, the show's 67-year-old patriarch, was suspended from the series this week after he referred to gay people as "homosexual offenders" in a national magazine interview. His comments to GQ magazine also seemed to question the need for federal entitlement programs.
Once again, TV finds itself in another cultural hot zone. The "Duck Dynasty" situation recalls last summer's uproar over celebrity chef Paula Deen, who lost her Food Network gig and many sponsorship deals after she admitted she had "of course" used a racial epithet in the past.
TLC pulled an episode of "Cake Boss" in 2012 after "Cousin Anthony" mocked a transgender guest. Similar flare-ups damaged the careers of radio host Don Imus, Oscar winner Mel Gibson and actor Isaiah Washington after they were accused of using racially insensitive or homophobic speech.
These cases reflect larger rifts in American life — call it a split between progressives and traditionalist values.
But the particular problem for the TV industry is that it's trying to profit off the same cultural tensions it's exploiting. That inevitably leads to problems such as the current one engulfing "Duck Dynasty."
The reality programming trend in recent years has made stars out of everyone from bakers to pawnbrokers to catfish-wranglers. That these "authentic" people have opinions and values that don't always jibe with those of the media elite in New York and Los Angeles isn't necessarily surprising.
But it means that the executives and PR handlers have had to get very good at backpedaling away from uncomfortable realities. That's most likely what is happening now on "Duck Dynasty."
"A&E has been very careful in editing and presenting this family, being careful not to show any potential controversial views," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "But they can't control what they say outside of the show."
"Channels like A&E program 'regular' people mostly to make curiosities out of them," said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. "The programmers want to manage every aspect of their 'reality' commodities, but that isn't really possible.
"If A&E wants the Robertsons to make money for the channel by being authentic, then at some point A&E has to accept that reality stars will be real human beings," McCall added. "If A&E didn't like the Robertsons as they are, then why did they give them a weekly platform?"
Hours after Robertson was suspended for his comments, the affair had mushroomed into a highly emotional national debate. A Facebook page demanding Robertson's return had earned more than 600,000 "likes" and the hashtag #StandWithPhil spread across Twitter.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal expressed support for the "Duck Commander" patriarch, as did former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Glenn Beck said he'd be happy to have "Duck Dynasty" on his start-up network the Blaze, while Fox News host Sean Hannity targeted A&E executives for suspending Robertson on an indefinite "hiatus."
The backlash didn't appear to faze liberal pressure groups, however. By midday Thursday, GLAAD was emailing supporters with a fundraising appeal tied to the controversy. "As a community, these are the moments we rise to," the advocacy organization said in the pitch letter. CNN host Piers Morgan denounced Robertson for his "repulsively racist, homophobic bigotry."
What's different about the "Duck Dynasty" case is that Robertson's distinctive world view was part of what A&E was selling all along. He has been vocal before now about his conservative Christianity as well as his marital troubles and love of guns and hunting.
"Duck Dynasty" is a major part of A&E's business plan. The show is the No. 1-rated reality series on cable TV. The Season 4 premiere drew a record 11.8 million total viewers, according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched nonfiction telecast ever on cable TV. That's good news for A&E's bottom line.
The channel, which is available in 99 million U.S. homes, is expected to generate nearly $885 million in total revenue this year, according to consulting firm SNL Kagan. More than two-thirds of that haul will come from advertising, which is expected to rise 9% over last year. The rest comes from subscriber fees that are part of consumers' monthly cable bills.
But now Robertson's views have driven a potential wedge between him and his family and the network that made them stars.
In an interview with GQ, Robertson called gay people "homosexual offenders" and seemed to equate gay sex with bestiality. He also said that he "never" saw blacks mistreated in the pre-civil rights era. "No one was singing the blues," he said.
Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau and senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy, said that while Robertson's comments about gays were probably "the most outrageous and damaging," his statements about African Americans were "misleading and otherwise problematic."
"The time he was speaking of was the 1960s," he said. "He would have been hard-pressed to be living in Louisiana in that time and not see the demonstrations, or hear about the lynchings and the attacks on civil rights workers. What he said is revisionist history."
On Wednesday, A&E said it was "extremely disappointed" by Robertson's quotes and put him on an indefinite hiatus from filming the show. However, he will appear in some episodes in the new season set to premiere on Jan. 15, as those had been filmed before his suspension. And the network continues to run marathon airings of the series.
How A&E proceeds will decide the future of the show. The tight-knit Robertson clan may not like the idea of moving forward without their patriarch. But at the same time, A&E must tread carefully in bringing him back to the show lest the network appear self-serving and hypocritical.
But industry veterans say there's little chance that the controversy, however emotional, will sink the show. There's simply too much money at stake, they say.
"A&E has created a monster," said Thompson. "They've shown this likable family that is homespun and warm. So now it seems like they're being attacked, but this will blow over and I think Phil will return."
Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Meg James and Patrick Kevin Day contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun