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 back country can make good and become mega-stars.
But now Phil Robertson, 67, one of the show's biblically bearded clan members who helped turn a family duck-call business into a cultural phenomenon, has made comments that have A&E executives singing the blues. In fact, the very survival of the show may be at stake.
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.
A&E put Robertson on indefinite hiatus from the show.
The way forward is unclear. A&E may find it difficult to bring Robertson back without seeming self-serving and hypocritical — and without attracting more attention from pressure groups. Advertisers might flee rather than risk an ongoing controversy, but the close-knit Robertson clan may not like the idea of soldiering on without one of its members.
What is clear is that 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 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. That's evident in the reaction Thursday. Fans and nonfans of the series took to social media to either express their outrage at A&E for removing Robertson or for airing the show in the first place.
"What's clear is that such hateful anti-gay comments are unacceptable to fans, viewers, and networks alike," said GLAAD spokesman Wilson Cruz. Robertson's removal "has sent a strong message that discrimination is neither a Christian nor an American value."
Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had a different take on Facebook. "Free speech is an endangered species," she wrote, alongside a photo of herself with the cast of the show. "Those 'intolerants' hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us."
Jake Smith, a volleyball champion from Lawton, Okla., wrote, "Phil Robertson is the man! Finally someone with a voice spoke some truth. If you're persecuted, then you are blessed."
Clay Guerry of Myrtle Beach, S.C., thinks Robertson's thoughts were par for the course, writing, "If you watch a show about rednecks being rednecks, eventually they will say something a bigot would say."
The hashtag #StandWithPhil became a thing, and several online petitions have been started to show support for Robertson, including one on Change.org that has amassed more than 50,000 signatures and a website IStandWithPhil.com, which had gathered more than 22,000 signatures.
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, which has new episodes returning Jan. 15.
The reality programming trend in recent years has made stars out of everyone from bakers to pawn brokers 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 we're seeing happen right now on Duck Dynasty.