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'Duck Dynasty' Suspension: Why A&E Played Its Cards Right

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It's been a tough 24 hours for the "Duck Dynasty" cast -- or for Phil Robertson, at least.

In case you've missed the media blitz, the reality star was lambasted online and then promptly suspended from the A&E reality series in the wake of his comments regarding homosexuality made in an interview with GQ.

What was likely expected to be a positive day of press for the bearded cast member -- the GQ story went live the same day that a "Duck Dynasty" cover story ran in the Hollywood Reporter -- quickly went sour thanks to a barrage of news articles and angry tweets condemning Robertson and his remarks.

Robertson, for his part, issued a statement before being indefinitely suspended from his television show.

"I myself am a product of the '60s," Robertson said. "I centered my life around sex, drugs and rock and roll until I hit rock bottom and accepted Jesus as my Savior. My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."

Hours later, however, A+E Networks (parent company of A&E) revealed that it had placed the star on indefinite filming hiatus, stating, "We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in GQ, which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series 'Duck Dynasty.' His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community."

Robertson's indefinite suspension from "Duck Dynasty" marks one of the swiftest reactions by a network in response to controversial remarks.

Food Network severed ties with Paula Deen in June following Deen's admission that she'd used racial slurs in the past, but that ordeal took days to unfold, climaxing with a series of cancelled interviews and uncomfortable taped apologies. And when A&E dealt with the controversy in 2007 over a racial slur used by Duane "Dog" Chapman of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" by pulling the program from its airwaves, it allowed the show to return a few months later after the hubbub had died down.

"Duck Dynasty" is A&E's strongest property, breaking ratings record after ratings record in its fourth season on the cabler. Program recently bowed a Christmas spesh that drew over 9 million viewers, and plans to return for the rest of its fourth run in January.

Some may wonder -- why promptly suspend Phil Robertson (and indefinitely, at that -- one step away from firing) when A&E could, like other networks, simply distance itself and issue a stern statement? Especially when this is such a highly rated program?

The swift decision-making by the A&E brass represents a new sense of urgency from nets to quiet the condemnation firestorm that spreads across the oil-drenched fields of Twitter, Facebook and blogs. "Duck Dynasty" draws in some of the most lucrative auds on TV -- adults 18-34 and 18-49 -- demos that are increasingly liberal-minded when it comes to matters of sexuality. "Real World" creator Jon Murray even noted recently that portraying a gay relationship on television no longer elicits the kind of shock from young viewers that it did in the '90s -- these things are now commonplace with TV viewers at a time when surveys show a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.

With Phil Robertson's remarks comparing homosexuality to bestiality, A&E had little choice but to act swiftly, given the company's stated corporate values. A+E nets would have quickly become a pariah in Hollywood had the company not taken a strong stand and the backlash would have tarnished A&E in the eyes of many viewers.

In other words: when it comes to entertainment, low tolerance is turning into no tolerance.

With that in mind, A&E no doubt played its cards right. Because the show has such a strong ensemble cast, A&E is likely comfortable in cutting Phil Robertson loose, knowing that the remaining members of the Robertson clan can support the comedic docuseries' narrative in future episodes of the program. Unlike the situation with "Dog the Bounty Hunter," Phil Robertson was not the sole face (or beard) of "Duck Dynasty" -- the show can carry on without him (assuming the other family members do not balk at his suspension), and the firestorm of criticism can be tempered online.

Would A&E at this point suspend a reality star that carried an entire program? That we do not know. But networks are certainly growing bolder when it comes to severing ties with inflammatory talent. MSNBC canned Alec Baldwin last month from his newbie primetime talkshow following his use of gay slurs, thereby nixing a potentially profitable show -- and notable talent -- from its lineup. And Food Network ending its relationship with Deen meant losing one of its most recognizable network faces (though her presence lives on on the net's website.)

Of course, a "backlash to the backlash" has already unfolded, as conservative groups decry A&E's decision, claiming it attacks "freedom of speech and freedom of religion." The move to indefinitely suspend Phil Robertson has sparked a broader discussion about what CNN has dubbed "belief versus bigotry" -- what is a network to do when its talent expresses an opinion that is on the steep decline in the nation? One that is considered discriminatory in an increasingly open-minded American population?

Unlike with scripted programs, reality stars are in the biz of selling their personal brand, one that becomes inextricably linked to the network that airs the unscripted show -- and perhaps even more so with A&E, since the program is the most buzzed-about series on its lineup. The "Duck Dynasty" cast has certainly taken advantage of its elevated brand, not only with the bevy of Robertson family merchandise available to consumers, but also with its political campaigning for conservative leadership in Louisiana (the Robertson family is widely credited in helping get Louisiana political newcomer Vance McAllister into congress in November).

What's more, the Robertson family has ultimately never strayed from its conservative and religious lifestyle as it champions Christian orgs. Gurney Prods., the Los Angeles-based unscripted shingle behind the show, has walked a fine line of highlighting the faith element in the family's rags-to-riches story -- which has made the show a draw for some viewers who would not otherwise tune in -- but not so much that it overshadows the folksy-comedic nature of the family's relationships.

A&E likely had more than an inkling of Phil Robertson's line of thinking when it comes to sexuality, but was never forced to confront those thoughts in such a broad public forum as the GQ article. The net was able to offer viewers a section of Phil Robertson's personal brand in half-hour chunks, but, this week, America began to fill in the missing pieces with his graphic remarks about heterosexual and homosexual sex. Whether the net dug its own grave when it came to promoting reality stars that maintain ultra-conservative values is up for debate -- was this debacle inevitable, given the family A&E and Gurney Prods. chose to highlight?

Either way, the cabler has been able to establish its progressive corporate values, maintain its relationship with advertisers, and not collapse an entire reality show in the process. The bullet wasn't entirely dodged, but it at least didn't hit a main artery.

The fallout is well under way, though, as Phil Robertson-related hashtags trend across Twitter and stories crop up online and on-air left and right. Network brass will have to wait and see if "Duck Dynasty" ratings are affected when it returns to the net on Jan. 15. Some fans of the show who support Phil Robertson have vowed to not tune in, but those angry social- media promises often lose their edge as weeks pass, and the media are distracted by a new problem to base segments on. Right now, the reverberation continues: an old myth claims that a duck's quack doesn't echo, and never before has the myth been so debunked.

Related stories'Duck Dynasty' Suspension: Christian Org Launches Campaign Calling A&E's Move 'Discriminatory Censorship''Duck Dynasty' Patriarch Draws Rebuke for Anti-Gay Comments'Duck Dynasty Christmas Special' Draws 8.9 Million Viewers 2013 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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