If many see "reality shows" like A&E's Duck Dynasty as simple harmless fun, I believe they are dangerously mistaken. The show is a "scripted reality show," which means that the subjects of the show are fed lines written by writers and producers to make the show more interesting, and to enhance reality. It is only one of many similar shows currently in production, or being planned for production, in an increasingly inane line up of low-budget, high propaganda value shows. Some of us question what values are being promoted by such shows. Are such shows really only innocuous entertainment?
What is concerning to many of us is the idea that the show not only fails to present an unscripted and genuinely colloquial documentation of a group of people, acting as they would were cameras and production staff not there, it also does not feature much outside of highly valued product placements, and scripted jingoistic social and political propaganda. The Duck Commander duck call business is run by people who are college educated, and quite capable of creating business plans, marketing plans, (look at their website), and superlatively running a highly successful business. While there is nothing sinister about succeeding in business, this is not any rags to riches story of everyday familiar "bumpkins" benefiting from the perceived enhanced mobility of American society. It is a well planned out, and relatively rare group of astute individuals who have achieved uncommon financial success in Louisiana, a state where a disproportionately large number of people are suffering under crushing poverty.
Whether there has been adequate background information provided to viewers about the show's characters is ultimately open to debate. It seems fairly clear that what is being promoted is the impression of very basic and earthy people who are perhaps "unpolluted" by urbane pretension. However, the show is not about a group of hapless, unaware individuals who simply "got lucky." It is a staged, and cleverly crafted anthem on American enterprise, the devaluing of demonstrative intelligence and collective civility, and a promotion of the marketplace as the great equalizer of opportunity. It is based on a largely implied and incomplete backstory, with the version of reality that is delivered being one that is readily geared to selling both the sponsors' products, and a highly directed sociopolitical subtext.
This appears to be the "bottom line" of reality television. The people on the shows are generally not protected by union contracts or rules, and the compensation for cast and production staff is significantly lower than on most traditional union connected projects. Given that some shows are scripted, with writers and cast not being offered union scale pay, this could be seen by some as an effort to bypass the unions, and in so doing maximizing the profits for producers. Given the lower pay, and questionable safety record of reality television shows in general, this idea may have some traction. If the shows are part of a trend to try and bypass unions, they are clearly very successful in their efforts, with shows like Duck Dynasty outperforming many traditionally produced shows that had mistakenly been expected to hold their viewers.
If Duck Dynasty is meant to simply present an ordinary group of simple country people who are living life as they might every day, it clearly is not in line with reality. Louisiana is tied with a number of other poor states as being in the second position nationally for the most people living under the poverty level. According to the latest census information, Louisiana has 17.3 percent of its residents living under the poverty level. Other readily accessible sources describe the largest majority of residents of the state as being financially "at-risk" of falling into deep poverty. One might not get that impression from watching the show, which features people who have clearly lived the "American Dream." While this distortion of reality is not extremely uncommon, the promotion of earthy and seemingly disadvantaged "common folk" being financially successful appears to be meant to break the accepted expectation that such people tend to be disproportionately poorer.
That the people who founded and operate the Duck Commander business have both college degrees and other uncommon advantages is lost in the show's projected narrative. That does not appear to be an accident. Overall, Louisiana tends to rank towards the bottom of national rankings in terms of spending on education, and in educational outcomes. So, even if the show played up the fact that this company's founders had the advantage of education, it would not negate the reality that relatively few in Louisiana manage to garner an economically competitive level of education, or take the questionable education they are provided with to the level of financial success that the primaries in the show have attained.
Many reasons have been offered for the show's popularity. It appears to be most popular with the same demographic that shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and other similar type folksy shows appeal to. According to a variety of publicly available sources, these shows tend to appeal to those with the least education, highest level of religiosity and children. Many of the shows have been the darlings of those who consider themselves "Patriots," "Conservatives," and those focused on "Family Values," while some of the harshest critics have been members of "Progressive Community," and other liberal leaning groups. There is no absolute or definitive method determining why such shows are popular. The rationales presented in public sources run across a wide range of explanations and theories, but there is nothing that could be deemed "conclusive." Regardless of why they are popular, their popularity has prompted the planning of ever-increasing numbers of them to be put into production.
What this portends for the future is anyone's guess. If you find such shows inoffensive and amusing, then you are likely see them simply as an evolution of entertainment. If, like many of us, you view such shows as an assault on the idea of "living wage" pay, honesty in media, and as an overt effort to disguise ideals like those of Ludwig von Mises (of the Austrian School of Economics) as "family values," then you will see such shows as another nail in the coffin of fairness and civility in both our economic and social lives. The glorification of poor language skills, incivility towards those in our immediate environment, and the total disrespect of reality in general, are innovations that are alarming to many of us. The list of similar shows that glorify ignorance, cruelty, and disrespect of people and things includes shows like Comedy Central's Tosh.0, and a number of shows on channels that run the continuum of programming themes, even down to An Idiot Abroad, on the Science Channel (in the United States). Such shows not only debase their subjects in cruel ways, they suggest that such attitudes are okay, and completely acceptable in a civil society. That is not suggestive of a future of enhanced cooperation, tolerance, or mutual respect among widely differing peoples. Unlike cartoons and sitcoms, such shows are being suggested as representative of "reality." But sadly, they also suggest something dystopian and ugly may eventually become the norm.
Follow Jeffrey P. Colin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@CompassionV