Duck Dynasty returned to A&E last night with brand new episodes, the first since the row last month about Phil Robertson's comments regarding sin and homosexuality. The reality show, entering its fifth season, had strong numbers, but they were lower than the season 4 debut. That number was all MSNBC needed to seize on to see a moral victory for the gay-rights groups that had pressured A&E to fire Phil Robertson.
"'Duck Dynasty' ratings dip amid anti-gay flap," thundered the teaser headline on the msnbc.com landing page. Clicking the link brings the reader to Morgan Whitaker's January 17 article, "‘Duck Dynasty’ sees ratings drop in season premiere," which begins (emphasis mine):
Is bigotry bad for business? Executives at A&E might be asking that question this week after their top-rated reality show Duck Dynasty took a ratings dive in its season five premiere episode Wednesday night.
The program’s numbers were still strong by cable TV standards, with 8.5 million viewers, but the ratings dropped by nearly 30% from the season four premiere, which had drawn a record-setting 12 million viewers. The premiere episode’s ratings came in slightly under a special Christmas episode that aired shortly before the show’s patriarch made headlines with controversial comments in a GQ interview.
The two premiering episodes, “Boomerang Becca” and “Willie’s Number Two,” are the first new installments from the series since Phil Robertson’s interview in which he made critical comments about homosexuality and said that “blacks” were happy in “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare” American and that “no one was singing the blues.”
Of course reality shows, like scripted TV programs, have their own life cycles, and ripping this one stat out of context may help drive handy political message for the lefties at MSNBC -- unapologetically conservative Christian Phil Robertson is turning off younger, more liberal viewers -- but it's hardly proof-positive of that case.
"A&E notes the number [is] up slightly from the fourth season finale on Oct. 23 (though obviously it’s standard to compare premieres to premieres)," noted Entertainment Weekly's James Hibberd. Fair enough, but that still means more folks are watching the new episodes from this season than watched the last new episode of the last season. Additionally, EW noted, the fifth season debut of 8.5 million is down slightly from 8.6 million viewers in the February 2013 third season debut. The anomaly, then, is the 11.8 million who tuned in for the fourth season debut back in August, which may be largely attributable to first-time curiosity from folks who were just starting to hear about the show and thought they'd check it out. Simply put, 2013 is the year when Duck Dynasty made its mark in the wider popular culture, having transcended its relative obscurity heretofore. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but of course that has nothing to do with Phil Robertson's theology and everything to do with it being a reality show about a family business.