The New Year is here, the Duck Dynasty A&E hit series survived co-star Phil Robertson’s controversial remarks about gays and blacks, and all is right with the world. Or is it?
First, a very condensed recap: The patriarch of the duck-call making family at the center of the most-watched reality show on cable TV told GQ magazine that he equated homosexuality with bestiality. He also said he labored along with blacks in the pre-civil rights era and added, “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” Complaints ensued. Sponsors pulled Dynasty products but then restored them. A&E suspended Robertson but reinstated him.
Leaders tracking the head-spinning saga might puzzle over whether lessons are to be learned. Among questions raised:
When and how do you punish popular personalities for making provocative comments? What if the “offender” is a major moneymaker? What if key sponsors support him? At least 250,000 viewers too? And if you first punish him but ultimately decide it would cost you too much, should you reverse yourself?
OK, let’s think about it. Were Robertson’s comments offensive? Many thought yes while others said the words were reasonable free speech from a rural, conservative guy known for speaking his mind on his program. Personally, I believe Robertson crossed the line and that A&E ought to hold him accountable.
But I concede that Phil Robertson and A&E do not exist in a vacuum. While activist groups protested the remarks, social-media and petition-backed viewers and advertisers adamantly insisted the network overreacted with the initial suspension. Hardly a thought-experiment in MBA class, this was a dilemma involving a network’s most successful show that is something of a cultural sensation.
I think it boils down to two questions: 1) how egregious were Robertson’s statements and 2) how do A&E executives perceive their company?
First, I think most of us would agree that the Duck guy stepped right up to the line on the extremely sensitive topics of homosexuality and race. Robertson offended many. Yet, many others either agreed with him or defended his Constitutional right to say what he did. He’s not running for office. He appears on a laid-back family-centered show that appears to project a certain authenticity. Muzzling Robertson might be overkill.
Second, and actually this is the more challenging area for me, A&E executives clearly decided their network is about money making, not political correctness or word policing. A&E and the Robertsons are now making nice with each other, insisting this was not about hatred, and trying to smooth public sensibilities through conciliatory words and actions. But I still think A&E has put itself out on a limb with a crack in it. Whether it’s Duck Dynasty or any other program, there will be far less public tolerance if another A&E character steps up to that fine line between free speech and hate speech. Next time, someone will pay.
Finally, the Duck Dynasty nastiness and the botched Paula Deen N-word apology months earlier remind us why media training matters. High-profile people and those linked to them have far too much to lose if the celebrities don’t think more carefully about what they will say publicly.