Reality television is loved for its supposedly unvarnished look at American life. But when TV celebrities strip away too much of their veneer, financial disaster can ensue, as Paula Deen demonstrated earlier this year.
This time around, “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson has caused trouble for his hit A&E show. The bearded 67-year-old is now on an indefinite hiatus after telling GQ Magazine that gay people “won’t inherit the kingdom of God."
The incident is similar to Paula Deen’s empire-ruining admission that she had used racial slurs. That led to the cancellation of her Food Network show, as well as the loss of other lucrative contracts ranging from serving as a spokeswoman for Novo Nordisk to Smithfield Foods. Despite a tear-streaked apology on “Today,” Deen’s goose was cooked. Her lost earnings reportedly mounted to as much $12.5 million by June.
“Duck Dynasty” has spawned a TV and merchandising empire similar to Deen’s. While its flagship show, which drew record ratings when it returned for its fourth season in August, is nothing to sneeze at, the real gravy is the Robertson family’s lucrative merchandising deals. Tie-in products were on track to reach a whopping $400 million this year, according to Forbes.
Nearly half of the $400 million stems from sales of “Duck Dynasty”-themed merchandise at Walmart (WMT), although the show has more than 75 licensing deals ranging from a board game (“spot the genuine quotes from among the decoys”) to a throw pillow in duck camo (“Snuggle up while watching the hit series").
Despite the outcry, the Robertsons just might escape Deen's dire fate. The show may be helped by the fact that the brand isn’t only about Phil Robertson, unlike Deen’s personality-driven show. The Robertson family is comprised of several family members, from Uncle Si to the Jase Robertson, Phil’s son.
Despite the hiatus for Phil Robertson, he’ll actually be on the show in its upcoming fifth season, which debuts on Jan. 15 and has already been completed, according to the Los Angeles Times. For fans, the suspension may seem fleeting because of that timing.
LGBT community advocacy group GLAAD has called on advertisers to “re-examine their ties” to Robertson, but as yet it’s unclear whether any marketers will cut ties to the brand or show.
At the same time, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin defended the patriarch, writing on Facebook, “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also supported Robertson, saying, “It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended."
A&E Networks didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from CBS MoneyWatch.