Is 'Duck Dynasty' played out?

I'm as surprised as anyone to hear that the ratings for the "Duck Dynasty" fifth season premiere were down about 27% from the fourth-season opener last summer. I would have thought that the publicity bonanza reaped from duck patriarch Phil Robertson's intemperate comments just before Christmas would last long enough to at least spur some curiosity viewing, even if it were short-lived. But no.

But it's probably too much to say that the fall in viewership has anything to do with a nationwide distaste for casual racism and undifferentiated bigotry, which were what distinguished Robertson's quotes in GQ.

Having reviewed more clips than I care to remember after my last post on the topic, I think it's more likely that the program has run out its string. There's a point at which hijinks and jackassery by what Gene Lyons quite accurately identified as "country-clubbers posing as rednecks" would pall, and the utter sameness of the "Duck Dynasty" episodes probably had more to do with the falloff than distaste at Robertson's world view. It's also possible that people intrigued by the controversy tuned into reruns, and got their fill that way, or that the collateral publicity about the fraudulence of the show's veneer of "reality" turned viewers off.

My colleague Ryan Faughnder also cites the difference in the on-air environment between the fourth-season opener, which aired during the summer, and the latest premiere, which has fresh network competition. Anyway, the premiere did draw 8.5 million viewers overall and 4.2 million in the valued 18-49 demographic, so even if it has jumped the mallard content-wise, the show is still money in the bank for the A&E network.

The figures do point to how little effect political rallying, and protesting, can have on a commercial enterprise that doesn't otherwise abandon its core business model. After Dan Cathy, the chairman and CEO of Chick-fil-A, was quoted objecting to gay marriage in 2012, his supporters defended the company against the uproar by arranging a Buy-Chick-fil-A rally that filled the company's fast-food stores on the designated day. The day after that, the crowds dwindled back to normal.

Similarly, most corporate boycotts fail, because success requires a sustained effort over months, even years. It's just too hard to keep people at a heightened level of dudgeon for that long, except in rare cases where the underlying cause is a continuing outrage, like the abuse of migrant farm workers or apartheid. The occasional expression of a political or social opinion, no matter how retrograde, usually won't cut it.

If there's any lasting fallout from the "Duck Dynasty" affair, it probably will fall on the politicians who rushed to defend Robertson's "free-speech" right to express an idiotic opinion, presumably because they thought they would profit from affiliating themselves with the millionaire star of a popular TV show. Bobby Jindal, step forward. As Lyons writes, "unapologetic bigots always fade into obscurity, basically because they embarrass people." If some people can't be embarrassed, that's their problem. 

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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