How Duck Dynasty became a television and cultural sensation
After years of celebrating little-watched cable television shows like The Sopranos (about the mafia and laced with profanity) and Breaking Bad (about a drug dealer and laced with profanity), the North American entertainment media took notice of the ratings success of Duck Dynasty, which attracts millions more viewers. In the February 2013 season three premier, it attracted 8.6 million viewers, the most watched show in A&E history. The August 2013 season four premier drew an audience of 11.8 million, making it one of the most watched non-football shows in cable history. The popular press took notice of the Robertson family that is central to the Duck Dynasty franchise.
In 1972, Phil Robertson created the Duck Commander duck call and the next year started the Duck Commander Company in the shed of his family home in West Monroe, Louisiana. It grew into thriving small business and eventually he made promotional videos of duck and deer hunting that led to a pair of shows about those themes following Robertson and his hunter sons, Willie, Jase, and Jep. A&E, a cable channel, thought the family, with their large beards, ubiquitous beards, and humorous banter was marketable and started a new show, Ducky Dynasty which focuses on the family and the family business, which is now run by Willie.
The show is formulaic, with two storylines following some set of the family members and employees doing one thing while others are doing something else – the men in the factory, the wives trying to get their husbands to do something, the husbands hunting – and each episode concludes with Phil leading grace before the extended family shares a meal and Willie narrating the lessons learned from the week’s shenanigans. There is no sex, no profanity, and religious and family values are exalted. So the answer to the question posed by entertainment writers as to why the popularity, is simple: the show harkens to the innocent and virtuous shows of the past and which is missing in most network and cable fare. (Interestingly, there have been two minor controversies with Phil Robertson complaining that producers had censorious bleeps when no profanities were uttered and editing out his references to “In Jesus’ name, amen” from his prayers.) By providing family friendly fare that millions of Americans in flyover country enjoy the show has become a cultural phenomenon, with a line of clothing, greeting cards, plastic kitchenware, a Christmas CD, and best-selling autobiographies from several of the lead personalities of the show. Forbes reported last month that the Duck Dynasty empire is now worth $400 million.
The books tells the stories of Phil Robertson (Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander, Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 230 pages), Willie and Korrie Robertson (The Duck Commander Family: How Faith, Family, and Ducks Built a Dynasty, Simon & Schuster, $27.99, 261 pages), and Si Robertson (Si-Cology 101: Tales and Wisdom from Duck Dynasty’s Favourite Uncle, Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 231 pages), and are all best-sellers with multiple print runs. Phil’s wife Kay, who loves her family and southern cooking, is also the author of a cook book, and another son, Alan Robertson, a pastor, has authored the The Duck Commander Devotional (Simon & Schuster, $19.99, 400 pages), a collection of Christian prayers and reflections between camouflaged covers.
The three Robertson autobiographies reinforce and fill in the “characters” from the TV shows. They highlight family life and successful entrepreneurship, which share in common the need for hard work. Happy marriages, like thriving businesses, do not just happen.
Phil Robertson in Happy, Happy, Happy explains in detail how the family got the business off the ground. He tells how the family worked and lived together to build a home on property on the water, including the pride his own father (who lived with them) of being the patriarch of a large family “which numbered 60 during his lifetime.” Phil quit teaching and became a full-time fisherman, which led to his developing his duck call, which “commanded” ducks to him. In the early years, it was not easy.
Robertson discusses his conversion to Christianity, and he says all his successes come from the decisions he made due to that one vital decision. He needed Christ to become the man he would become, and his transformation followed an immersion in the teachings of Jesus, beginning with twice weekly church services at White’s Ferry Road Church (where his eldest son, Alan, would later pastor), daily Bible study, and the determination to live the Word. He understood that he could not thrive until he thrived spiritually.
Phil Robertson’s passions are God, family, and hunting. He says his success was a result of staying the course: “There is a God and He blessed us because we did what was right – we loved Him, we loved our neighbour, and we hunted ducks.” The blessings he and his family had either “came from Him or I was one of the luckiest souls that ever came along with a little idea.” Yet he understands that he is blessed not simply because his company took off, but because he was, as he likes to say, “happy, happy, happy” long before the material success came along.
One source of happiness is family, and he calls having children a miracle, even if there are challenges: he threw Alan out of the house because he was “wild” and had to “rescue” Jep whose drinking had become an issue.
Willie and Korie, high school sweethearts, also tell their business and family story. Willie explains that he wanted to do Duck Dynasty to promote the company and sales of their hunting products, but also to “show America a family that loves each other and was, dare I say, positive in so many ways.” It was A&E’s idea to finish each episode with family dinner and prayer.
Both Willie and Korie say they “try to glorify God in the way we treat one another and the way we raise our children, then ask God to do the rest.” They are strict with their four kids, but say the key to raising good children is spending time with them, praising them, and “letting them know they’re loved.”
The couple delight in spending time with their children; “sometimes when a family’s life totally revolves around the kids, parents can start to feel like their children are a burden,” Willie explains. “We’ve never felt that way. Our lives didn’t end when we brought children into the world.” Korie says an important lesson they’ve tried to impart is that “people are more important than things.” For example, she explains, “if one of the kids is watching TV and somebody wants to talk, you stop watching TV and listen to them.” That might explain why their kids are well-grounded despite the fame and fortune the Duck Dynasty success has brought them. (Daughter Sadie has leveraged her fame and principles into a line of modest clothing for teens.)
Uncle Si (short for Silas) provides most of the humour on the show. He is a Vietnam veteran and he certainly plays up the absent-minded and wacky uncle shtick on the show, where he is known for his catch phrases (“Jack” and “hey”) and always present Tupperware ice-tea cup (a gift from his mother when he was in ‘Nam). Off-air he is married, but his family does not appear on the show. The best part of his autobiography is about convincing Miss Christine to marry him after he returned from the war. She had been previously married and couldn’t have children. She said no to his marriage proposals numerous times, but Si persisted. Miss Christine knew that children were important to Si and he said: “If God wants us to have children, we’ll have children. If he doesn’t want us to have children, we’ll adopt some kids.” They had two kids and now have eight grandchildren.
Si Robertson concludes his book with a chapter on faith, and despite his on-air persona, provides incredible wisdom to describe why he believes in Jesus Christ: humanity has two problems, “we have a sin problem and a death problem.” Man alone cannot solve either.
The books are little more preachy than the shows. That makes some sense because the book-buying audience would be a harder-core fan who “gets” what the Robertsons are all about.
The return to simple truths, and its inoffensiveness (as long as you don’t mind fairly hygenic depictions of hunting and the occasional reference by Phil to “getting some lovin’” from his wife) is certainly a large part of the Duck Dynasty success. The television show doesn’t preach faith and family values as much as demonstrates them. The genius of the Robertson clan is that they can promote virtue and faithfulness by depicting normal family life and celebrating its joys: teaching children new skills, working together to finish tasks at both the factory and in the home, enjoying leisure time together (which usually means hunting), and building things. The formula has won millions of fans.
Off-air, the family has used their fame to promote their faith and values, as the books vividly illustrate. But they are also using the platforms being given to them, from church preaching to interviews, to spread the Word.
Earlier this year, a video of Phil Robertson delivering a sermon went viral online. He spoke out against abortion, saying: “we debate whether it’s a – some woman’s right to tear you out of there a piece at a time! C’mon! You have a God-given right to live. And of all places, inside your mother – what in the world happened to us?”
Also this year, Jase and his wife Missy told a radio audience that they were both virgins until their wedding day, an example their children are following. Jase said: “We were both virgins when we got married until our wedding night. We decided to do it God’s way and basically had a godly agreement that we would help each other get to heaven. A lot of people just think that that’s unreasonable or preposterous. But you know, if everybody chose to do it God’s way, the world would be a lot better off.”
Phil and Willie have supported pro-life political candidates and Willie has publicly donated to a pregnancy crisis center.
The Robertsons are not doing anything different than they’ve been doing for years, but due to an unlikely hit television program of Christians wearing camouflage, millions of typical Americans can see family friendly and faith-filled fare regularly on their TV sets. The Robertsons aren’t the only ones who are blessed.