Last week saw the return of the wildly popular A&E cable series Duck Dynasty. Despite the show’s popularity, the entertainment industry is unlikely to build upon its success…because they do not understand it.
Now in its fourth season, A&E’s “reality” series Duck Dynasty centers on the clannish members of the Robertson family, Louisianans who have built their small family business making duck calls into a multi-million dollar business empire. Episodes primarily revolve around humorous minor squabbles within the family and business, mostly between gung-ho CEO Willie and his laid-back brother and production manager Jase. The program has repeatedly broken records for A&E’s most-watched show, and last week’s season four premiere received 11.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched nonfiction cable telecast in history.
Duck Dynasty’s faith and family emphasis is key to its popularity. Most Americans look at Duck Dynasty and see a sincere, close-knit, Christian family, whose members – while eccentric — genuinely care about one another, have the courage of their convictions, and pray together before meals. But Hollywood looks at Duck Dynasty and say, “Those dumb hicks in Flyover Land sure love shows about rednecks.”
The very things that make the Robertsons appealing to American viewers are the things Hollywood finds most abhorrent: a traditional family with a relatively conservative worldview rooted in a deeply-held faith. The program’s emphasis on faith – and the fact that the positive portrayal of religion is so rare on television — is the reason it remains unique, popular, and draws in viewers. But so great is Hollywood’s disdain for religion that, according to cast member and family patriarch Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty is heavily edited by A&E bosses to omit most religious content: “We can’t get into spiritual matters on the show too much. That’s a little much for the production company. They say, you know, it’s not the Pat Robertson show,” Phil told The Wall Street Journal.
Nor is this perspective on Duck Dynasty an unusual one for the entertainment industry. Even when programs created by the industry itself reflect such values, they are ignored. Witness the case of the CBS drama Blue Bloods, a program about a close-knit family of Irish Catholics, all of whom are either police officers or are involved in the New York City justice system. Like Duck Dynasty’s Robertsons, the Blue Bloods’ fictional Reagan family is religious; the characters’ moral choices are clearly informed by their faith, and each episode includes a family dinner (before which the family prays), during which the members discuss how their morals should shape their reactions to their jobs, with all family members trying to “do the right thing.” The program’s star Donnie Wahlberg said recently that Blue Bloods gives viewers “the family you don’t see on TV anymore. Everybody’s so busy trying to create the most outlandish family on TV, they forgot about the traditional family.”
Blue Bloods has garnered little attention in the media or trade press, despite the fact that it averages 13 million viewers every week – surpassing the viewership of AMC’s cable gore-fest The Walking Dead, and far outstripping the viewership of such overhyped-by-the-media cable programs as American Horror Story, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. CBS has chosen to exile Blue Bloods to Friday nights at 10 p.m. (ET), long regarded as the “death slot” in the prime-time TV schedule. Yet despite this abysmal scheduling the program consistently remains in or near the top ten, making the show what Los Angeles Times reporter Steven Zeitchik calls “the most popular television show no one talks about.”
Another example is ABC’s Wednesday-night comedy The Middle. Starring former Everybody Loves Raymond star Patricia Heaton, the series focuses on the humorous travails of the Heck family. Again, The Middle is successful because it mirrors the experience of most real-life families living in “the middle”: a Midwestern, lower-middle-class traditional nuclear family, with a strong father figure, a competent mother, and three children with wildly different personalities, all of whom have relatable worries and concerns like school problems, dating difficulties, trouble paying the bills, and a leaky roof. And while the program gives a humorous tilt to the Heck’s religion, at least the family is shown going to church.
Instead of reflecting what most real American families look like, programs like Modern Family, by contrast, reflect what Hollywood thinks American families OUGHT to look like. Hollywood’s infatuation with its own narrow vision of life is obvious: while The Middle is consistently in the top ten most-watched programs, it is virtually ignored by ABC, and despite its talented ensemble cast (including Heaton and the hilarious Eden Shor as teenage daughter Sue), in its entire history the programhas only been nominated for one Emmy (Best Makeup). By contrast, Hollywood has deluged Modern Family with awards, with the show winning 16 Emmys and being nominated for many more.
A final example is Fox’s program Glee. There is little doubt that the idea for the program was prompted by the overwhelming success of the Disney Channel’s beloved High School Musical trilogy (even today, High School Musical 2 retains the record for the single most-watched cable program ever). Yet, with Hollywood’s typical proclivity for corrupting innocence, High School Musical’s squeaky-clean and family-friendly smash was transformed by Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story impresario Ryan Murphy into a program also about “high school musicals” – albeit one featuring mean-spirited, nasty characters, teen pregnancy, and non-stop references to kids having sex.
Invariably, whenever a movie or TV show reflects a positive, optimistic, faith-filled, family worldview, and contains characters with genuine, heartfelt, and sincere values, it becomes tremendously popular. This accounts in large part for the success of Pixar, whose many movies – the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Up, and others – mirror genuine emotions and touch viewers’ hearts, and which are humorous without indulging in snide putdowns or cynicism, let alone gory violence or endless raunchy jokes about sex. As October Baby and Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye producer Dave Alan Johnson has noted, “Inspiring, positive, uplifting films, if they’re well made, are ALWAYS popular; [but] today, they [Hollywood] always have to kind of cheapen them, and push them as far to the edge as they can, as opposed to doing mainstream, positive movies.”
Hollywood has consistently demonstrated an utter inability to make a continuing program from a concept which initially succeeded because it was simple and sincere. Instead, the entertainment industry typically copies the surface details, but then lards it with their own social and political agenda. And Hollywood’s so-called “creative” artists are obsessed with dark, disturbing, and “edgy” programming, apparently convinced that only such programs are worthwhile.
Given the success of Duck Dynasty, it will be not be surprising when Hollywood produces a number of vaguely similar programs featuring families of backwoods businessmen. But inevitably, Hollywood’s efforts at imitation will lack the genuineness, heart, and faith of the original; and so it will also not be surprising when such programs fail. Americans are attracted by sincerity, not shallow surface similarity and snide cynicism.
The arrogant presumption on the part of Hollywood writers and producers that they are somehow more intelligent than individuals living elsewhere, and their insistence on force-feeding American families programming which conforms, not to viewers’ desires, but to Hollywood’s agenda, is one of the entertainment industry’s least appealing attributes – one which is increasingly driving viewers away.