“Duck Dynasty”: Who’s Exploiting Whom?

Duck Dynasty - A&E

Like many people who think they know a lot about television, I was almost  completely unacquainted with the reality TV series “Duck Dynasty” until the  premiere of its fourth season. With more than 11.8 million viewers, this  episode, seemingly out of nowhere, became the most-watched nonfiction cable  telecast in history.  This was twice as many viewers as watched the vastly more-anticipated season premiere of “Breaking Bad.”

“Duck Dynasty” chronicles the exploits of the Robertsons, an extended  Louisiana family who run a successful business called Duck Commander. The  company manufactures duck calls (the gizmos that hunters use to lure mallards to  their doom during duck hunting season), and all the men in the family sport  massive Z.Z. Top-style beards and advocate for their down-home traditions.   In other words, it sounds like yet another poor-white-trash exploitation series,  in the tradition of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

But having watched a few episodes now, it’s clear that if the series is  exploitative, it’s not the Robinsons who are being exploited. They may act dumb,  but they are rich, savvy, shrewd businessmen; they are rednecks in the same way  that the late Senator Sam Ervin was a “simple country lawyer.”

There is a hayseed tradition in American culture going back at least to Mark  Twain, carrying through the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, “The Beverly Hillbillies”  and “Green Acres” TV series, and the “Li’l Abner” comics.  This tradition  portrays rural America as an alien world inhabited by moonshining,  interbreeding, corncob-pipe-smoking rubes.  These country folk are often  eccentric and backward, but sometimes they are the ones manipulating their  unsuspecting city cousins.  “Duck Dynasty” falls in the latter  category.

You don’t feel guilty about watching “Duck Dynasty,” as you sometimes do with  those other reality TV shows in which the participants are prodded to act out  their worst impulses.  The appeal of “Duck Dynasty” is that the Robertsons  are a happy, highly functional, mutigenerational family. There’s an irascible  but loving patriarch; his slightly ditzy but loving wife; their sons, who now  run the duck call business; their wives and daughters; and an offbeat but  lovable uncle.  Unlike the Waltons, they don’t live under the same roof,  but they are close enough to be very involved in each other’s lives.  And  each episode ends with the entire clan sitting around the dinner table, praying  for God’s blessings in Jesus’ name.

According to Nielsen, “Duck Dynasty” is the rare reality show with almost  identical ratings for men and women (the season premiere had a 4.07 rating for  men and a 4.06 rating for women).  Along racial lines, it has a high  viewership among whites (a 5.0 rating) and low ratings for blacks and Hispanics  (1.0 and 0.97 respectively). This is not particularly surprising, given that  it’s essentially a show about Southern good old boys.

There’s always a question of how much reality there is in a reality TV show,  but “Duck Dynasty” clearly pushes the boundaries.  It’s much closer to an  old-fashioned sitcom than to a documentary.  Off-camera, the family  actually might be colorful and amusing, but no group of people could consistently get up to the escapades that the Robertsons do.  It strains  credulity to think that the producers aren’t steering them into plots or feeding  them lines.

There is, for example, an episode in which Willie Robertson, the president of  the family business and possibly the smartest member of the family, whimsically  buys a winery sight unseen. Although he’s a college graduate, he claims to know  the names of only two varietals: cabernet sauvignon and merlot.  And  although he’s a successful businessman, he refuses to call on the expertise of professional winemakers; instead he summons his company’s top staff, who  proceed to muck around like 10-year-olds in a playground. They buy grapes from  the supermarket and nearly ruin the grape-crushing machinery before climbing  into the vat and squeezing out the juice with their bare feet.  It’s like something out of I Love Lucy.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all amusing. In fact “Duck Dynasty” is funnier than many scripted comedies. It’s “clean” fun, too: no gratuitous sex, bleeped out swearing or nasty conflicts. It’s one of those shows that parents and kids can watch together without mutual mortification. Best of all from the producers’ point of view, the ratings are highest among those highly desirable 18- to 49-year-olds.

The supposed advantage of cable is that it can be edgy, which too often translates into sexual situations and rough language. And yet some of the highest-rated shows on cable (I’m thinking also of History’s “The Bible”) advance traditional family values. You’d think this lesson would eventually sink in. Maybe if “Duck Dynasty” continues to generate these kinds of ratings, there will suddenly be a glut of eccentric but loving TV families.

  1. SarahJayne said:

    I was born and raised in the swamps of good ole Louisiana, where those good ole (notice “ole”) country boys are from. Yes, some of the antics featured are far fetched. Your example of the winery was spot on. There is no doubt that the producers set scenarios up for entertainment value. However, it is more “realistic” than any other reality show. It took me a long time to come around and finally watch the show, but once I did, I was hooked. Those of us whom were lucky enough to live in Louisiana and experience nature at its purest relate to this show on so many levels. Most of us are from Christian communities, most of us know how to bait a hook, most of us know the pleasure of eating fresh, wild honey. Most of us had a father or grandfather ripping snakes heads off just for our reaction as children. Most of all, a lot of us have seen hard times and have overcome those hard times with the love and support of our families and communities. Some of us were even lucky enough to have the hilarious Uncle So figure in their lives. Mine just happens to be my Uncle Mike. You’ll catch him riding his bike on the side of the highway, but instead of iced tea, it’s usually Miller Lite. Like Uncle So, his stories will have you in stitches. Viva Duck Dynasty!

    • Thanks SarahJayne. Glad to know the characters are realistic. I suspected that. What’s interesting about the show is the combination of cornpone behavior and business intelligence. The people on the show are obviously a lot smarter than they sometimes act, which makes me think a lot of the situations are staged.

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