Aug. 21, 2013 at 9:39 AM ET
It’s a Duck Nation, and we’re all just living in it.
Last week, A&E Network’s reality show “Duck Dynasty” catapulted to become the biggest unscripted show in cable history with its fourth season premiere. With nearly 11.8 million viewers, the show about a Louisiana family that has made millions from its duck call fabrication business is on the brink of toppling “The Walking Dead.” If it does, it will become cable's biggest show.
The A&E Network, as Duck Commander patriarch Phil Robertson would say, is “Happy, happy, happy.” The show premiered in March 2012 and finished its first cycle with an average 1.3 million viewers, according to data provided by Nielsen. By its third season finale, an average 8.4 million people were tuning in to hear Phil saying things like, “Ducks are like women. They don’t like a lot of mud on their butts,” and Uncle Si explaining the many uses of the word “Hey.”
Has "Duck" reached its peak audience? There's no way to know, but the network's executives aren't betting against it.
“I’m a superstitious man so I don’t make [ratings] predictions,” said David McKillop, A&E’s general manager and executive vice president. “But do I think we’ve found the ceiling yet? I don’t know but I don’t think so. We have some fun episodes coming down the pike. So keep your seat belt fastened.”
Those episodes, of course, will play off the Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana, who still live in the backwoods of bayou country despite the wealth they've amassed from their duck-sporting empire. A college football star who turned down an NFL offer because it interfered with duck season, Phil Robertson built Duck Commander, the mom-and-pop business that his son, Willie, later helped turn into a million-dollar operation with his business degree. Duck Commander specializes in top-of-the-line duck calls and decoys made from salvaged swamp wood and employs half their neighborhood.
While the Robertsons sometimes argue, they are religious Southerners who never curse and are always looking to enjoy life. Driving their bottomless charm is their desire to hang on to their guns and beards—no matter how much their wives protest or how famous or wealthy they become.
“Hijinx is a word that I use to describe the kind of zeitgeist of their compound,” McKillop said. “But they represent some real values that people still cherish.”
Values, "hijinx" and the hard work of a self-made man and family are likely part of the broad appeal of "Duck Dynasty," but fans of the show also cite its combination of endless comedy, signature one-liners, tender family moments, and wholesome tone as the factors that keep them most interested.
John Frerich, a 54-year-old dentist who lives in Marshall, Minn., watches “Duck Dynasty” with his wife and hasn’t missed an episode since they discovered it last year flipping channels.
“You can’t write comedy this funny,” the father of three said. “Those sitcoms that are on don’t even compare. And these are real people but they’re good people. I’m a Christian myself and we need some positive stuff on television too besides ‘The Walking Dead’ and people getting shot in the head and all the crime scene programs. I’m very impressed by this family of people that doesn’t always agree on things but they still love each other.”
For months, Carrie Ann Taylor, of Charlotte, N.C., heard her father rave about Uncle Si’s “Si-isms” without knowing what he was talking about. Then fate took over when she had to fly home to Indiana because her mother was in the hospital.
“I was waiting to board my flight and when they called for first class, the most rugged, raggedy, redneck looking man I’ve ever seen walked past me,” said Taylor, 39, who owns her own business and will complete her MBA next month. “He was scruffy and in hunter clothes. I remember thinking, ‘Who is this guy and how can he afford to fly?’ It was a really closed-minded thought process, I will admit that…When I got on board, he was in the very first seat and a flight attendant was taking a picture with him. I nudged the guy next to me and he said, ‘That’s Uncle Si Robertson!”
Taylor’s 62-year-old father was “over the moon” when she told him, and together they started watching episodes of the show during her visit home. Instantly, Uncle Si had her laughing so hard she was near tears, despite the fact that she thought the show was designed for people like her father—a blue-collar, retired military man who lives in the Midwest and rides a Harley.
“It would be understandable that he would like something like this—it’s right up his alley,” she said. “But it’s amazing to see the cross-section of people who loves this show because I think it reaches to the very core of humanity. The Robertsons are not doing crazy, crazy stuff. Even though they can be crazy and funny, they are extremely hard-working and they worked their tail off to get to where they are now. No matter what differences they have, they still love each other and still try to teach respect and appreciation for family and overall morals of what it is to be a good person and contribute to society.”
Even the youngest Americans are in on the duck craze. About 4.9 million viewers are 34 and younger. Sisters Taylor Tracy, 15, and Jordan Tracy, 19, who live in Clayton, N.C., tune in every week because they appreciate the Roberston’s “Christian and clean values.”
“They’re really funny and down-to-earth,” said Jordan, a college student. “You can tell they’re not materialistic.”
Then there’s little James Stewart, who lives in Clayton, Ohio. On Friday, the 4-year-old’s pre-school teacher assigned him a book-making project on any topic. When his mother picked him up, he was holding his handmade “Duck Dynasty” book.
“Oh my God! I thought, ‘How much have you been watching this show with me?” said Amy Stewart, who was half-horrified, and half-amused. “He made squiggly drawings and he said the guys make duck calls and they light things on fire.”
Stewart, 37, grew up in Ohio but her father is from West Virginia and she spent many summers vacationing in the South with her relatives. Stewart remembers her grandmother and aunt as strong women who taught her how to act like a lady.
“We are not ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,’” she said. “I hated ‘Buckwild’ for that reason too. But I do have friends and family that go hunting and my dad was in Vietnam so I have a little bit of an Uncle Si,” she said. “’Duck Dynasty’ just reminds me of that Southern family that I don’t get to be around a lot. I guess it’s a little comforting.”
One of the big draws to last week’s fourth season premiere was Phil and Kay’s vow renewal ceremony, which was a gift from their kids because they never had a wedding. By the time Phil had declared Kay his “best buddy” and she vowed to never leave him, hundreds of thousands of fans on Twitter were wishing they could find a love like theirs. With over 325,000 tweets that night, the show was the most social program of the night, according to a Twitter spokesperson. (“America’s Got Talent” was second with over 65,000 tweets).
Of course, A&E had a lot to do with that. The network launched an intensive social media campaign that included two new apps, Beard Booth and Endless Quack, an Uncle Si virtual Twitter game that asked fans to tweet #RedneckRenewal when he held a #celebrate sign on screen, and a social media response lab that tweeted custom content to influential fans.
“Social has played a major role in getting the word out,” McKillop said. “It all helps generate buzz and what it does is it lifts it from a TV show to a part of American pop culture. Once you’re up there in that bastion of American pop culture, you’re on top.”
In other words, Hey Jack!