The financial motivations are obvious. Duck Dynasty is the A&E’s golden goose duck. It’s cable’s biggest reality show ever (averaging more than 14 million viewers per week). There’s enormous merchandising revenue attached to the brand. As a business, A&E would have a tough time justifying nuking its all-time biggest hit at the peak of its popularity.
But what probably helped turn the tide in the Robertsons’ favor was that the debate wasn’t as clear-cut as the network and many in the media initially assumed. Robertson and his supporters argued that his anti-gay statements were an extension of his passion for the Bible. Once that frame gained a foothold — that this fight is about religion, and the freedom to endorse biblical teachings — A&E was stuck in the awkward position of appearing to advocate against both its own star and orthodox Christianity (ironic, considering A&E Networks garnered such goodwill from Christians for taking a chance on its The Bible mini-series on History this year).
Of course, the Bible doesn’t lend any support to Robertson’s other inflammatory sentiment made during his GQ magazine interview — that blacks were better off during the Civil Rights era. But even Jon Stewart grudgingly came down on Phil Robertson’s side on that, with the Daily Show host admitting he felt “an inclination to support a world where saying ignorant s–t on television doesn’t get you kicked off that medium.”
In battles between networks and cast members, typically the company has most of the leverage. But here the unified Robertson family — financially secure and not desperately needing a paycheck like many reality stars — held stronger cards. The defense of Phil Robertson that best weakened A&E’s decision to suspend him also handed the network its best excuse to back down. In its statement, A&E noted Robertson’s comments “reflect his personal views based on his own beliefs,” echoing Robertson’s defenders. A&E added that it will air PSAs “promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people,” which is the TV industry equivalent of a sinner saying Hail Marys.
Ultimately, once this issue exploded and so sharply divided millions of Americans, two things were destined to remain the same no matter which path A&E chose: The network was going to upset a large number of people, and this fight which turned a sweet family comedy into a religious, cultural and political battleground was never going to conclude with the network’s verdict. No matter how much A&E might want everybody to simply move on, Duck Dynasty cannot return to being a non-controversial show; this issue will stick with A&E and Duck Dynasty for years.