The Many Different Meanings of Duck Dynasty

Sometimes a TV show becomes a cultural phenomenon — or a cultural phenomenon for a segment of the country. So it is with A&E’s Duck Dynasty.

In the last few days, controversial comments about gays from one of the show’s stars, Phil Robertson, have become part of the political discussion, with conservative Republicans such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal coming to Mr. Robertson’s defense after he was suspended from the show.

The story sits at an intersection that the American Communities Project knows very well: the place where the culture wars meet niche media. Simply put, there are some communities in the ACP whose members are probably tuned in closely to Mr. Robertson’s suspension, perhaps outraged, and others where many residents had never heard of Mr. Robertson until his comments were broadcast by media far and wide.

To get a sense of the nation’s “Duck Dynasty divide,” the ACP used viewership data from Experian Marketing Services, and looked at how that data related to our 15 county types, outlined in the map below. People in the ACP’s Aging Farmlands, Rural Middle America and Working Class Country counties were almost twice as likely to have watched the show in the last seven days as those in the Big Cities. The Evangelical Hubs were also big viewers.

The Duck Dynasty divide is an example of how segmented and compartmentalized American culture is in 2013.

 Who Watched Duck Dynasty in the Last Seven Days?


% Who Said They Watched an Episode

Aging Farmlands Aging Farmlands


Rural Middle America Rural Middle America


Native American Lands Native American Lands


Working Class Country Working Class Country


Evangelical Hubs Evangelical Hubs


Middle Suburbs Middle Suburbs


Military Posts Military Posts


College Towns College Towns


African American South African American South


Exurbs Exurbs


Graying America Graying America


LDS Enclaves LDS Enclaves


Urban Suburbs Urban Suburbs


Big Cities Big Cities


Hispanic Centers Hispanic Centers


The percentages in that chart may seem small, but in the age of niche media and 300 channels, they are significant. This year’s Duck Dynasty season premiere drew almost 12 million viewers — a pittance compared to, say, the Superbowl’s 108 million, but enough to be “the most-watched non-fiction series telecast in cable TV history” according to Entertainment Weekly.

For the uninitiated, Duck Dynasty, which has spawned a mini industry of books, t-shirts and other paraphernalia, is a reality show about a close-knit Louisiana family that makes and sells duck hunting merchandise and espouses conservative family values.

With that in mind, perhaps it’s not a surprise that there’s a strong correlation on that list between rural places and heavy Duck Dynasty viewership. The people in the top five types in the chart above live in places where 50% of the population is “rural,” based on Census measurements.

But it’s not all about rural versus urban America. Next on the list are the people in the Middle Suburbs (in light orange on the map), the less-wealthy, whiter suburban communities that sit around big cities in the industrial Midwest.

The ACP breakdown shows a consistent Democrat/Republican Duck divide — that split is apparent in Duck Dynasty viewer numbers overall, as ACP Director Dante Chinni noted in a piece in the Wall Street Journal on December 20. In the ACP analysis residents in the Big Cities (in pink on the map) and Urban Suburbs (in dark orange), which both went heavily for President Barack Obama in 2012, are not big Duck viewers.

And the terrain for Duck Dynasty viewers can shift pretty quickly. While the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs are on the low end for Duck Dynasty viewers, the Exurbs (in yellow on the map) and Middle Suburbs, which often sit inside metro areas, score much higher for Duck watchers. Both those types voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

In something of a surprise, College Towns (in beige), which lean left politically, score relatively high for Duck Dynasty viewing, but that may be due in part to higher interest in reality TV. The students in those places have grown up watching reality television. They are reality TV nativists.

Those College Town viewer numbers also raise another question – why do the people in the ACP’s different communities tune in to watch the show? Not all viewers of Duck Dynasty aspire to be like the Robertson clan. Some may tune in for the show’s family-driven hijinks or to watch life in a foreign culture — it is reality TV, after all. And some regular viewers may take offense at Mr. Robertson’s comments.

But for many conservative evangelicals, the Robertsons are more than reality show stars, they’re Americans offering important lessons in family values and morality.

The cast members often speak to religious congregations about faith and values and the newest family cast member, Alan Robertson, is a former minster. “Duck Dynasty days” are not uncommon in the schools of some communities with large evangelical Christian populations. Those communities make up large parts of the Aging Farmlands, Evangelical Hubs, Working Class Country and Rural Middle America counties in the ACP.

The suspension of Phil Robertson may fire up voters in those areas who — on behalf of Robertson — feel under attack. If so, that could be a significant factor in 2014, when midterm elections will be based heavily on voter enthusiasm, turnout and the attitudes in small areas of often like-minded people, congressional districts.

The Duck hubbub also may also hold a challenge for the GOP in some places as well, however, in places like the Exurbs where more moderate Republicans might take exception to the remarks Mr. Robertson made in the GQ interview, where he said gays were not logical and compared them to “drunks” and “terrorists.”

And there is always the question of what the Robertsons may do to fire up the base for Democrats as well – in those Big Cities and Urban Suburbs. Already another video has emerged that shows Mr. Robertson insulting gays in a speech at a church in Pennsylvania.

The result may be that Duck Dynasty has broken out of its niche community segments to become an important part of the political mainstream for 2014 — but with very different meanings in the communities of the ACP.


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One comment on “The Many Different Meanings of Duck Dynasty
  1. Ray DiMuro says:

    Listener and support of WNYC – great project – interesting to follow

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