Why Duck Dynasty is a hit, and why copying it will fail

A&E’s Duck Dynasty is an unqualified hit, crushing even broadcast TV shows in the ratings. Why is it so successful? And what does that tell us about the inevitable copycats?

My friend Mo Ryan, AOL’s TV critic, breaks down its success into four parts: time to develop its audience, merging formats, and great characters with strong values. I agree with her analysis, especially this part:

“…if ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox tried to replicate its success — in scripted, semi-scripted or unscripted form — they’d probably fail. Even other cable networks — which will no doubt chase ‘Duck Dynasty’ as tenaciously as the Robertsons chase wild animals — might not be able to replicate the success of this stealthy show, which was barely on anyone’s radar a couple of years ago.”

This is an important point, and every network executive and producer needs to understand it, though I’ll restate it more forcefully: copying this format will fail.

Of course, everyone is going to try, roping together families and/or friends and running them through an obstacle course of scripted “comedy,” emphasis on the scare quotes, that will be neither funny nor charming.

As Mo’s piece shows, it’s a confluence of things that make this work, particularly that its cast members are exceptional characters. Let’s also not forget that they had TV experience before this, on their Outdoor Channel show, so they appear genuinely comfortable.

More importantly, scripting–and not just Real Housewives-style soft-scripting–rarely works this well. Shows that have their cast members fake things nearly always feel inauthentic, which is what happens when you ask non-actors to act and non-writers to write.

So, networks and producers, if you want to make reality TV that works this well, try this: reality. You’ll be far more likely to make a breakthrough show with something new and surprising (and real).

The Sing-Off loses its star

Ben Folds

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Plus: How the show's producers tried to keep the $250,000 competition fair.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.