Duck Dynasty: a scripted reality show sets cable nonfiction records

Duck Dynasty‘s return on A&E last night shattered ratings records, becoming the most-watched nonfiction series episode ever, easily justifying the cast’s recent raise to $200,000 an episode (or making it look really, really cheap). Here’s what A&E said in a press release:

“Wednesday night’s one-hour season four premiere at 10PM became the number one nonfiction series telecast in cable history with 11.8 million viewers tuning in. The episode set a cable record for a nonfiction series telecast among adults 25-54 with 6.3 million viewers in the demo. The episode was also watched by 6.3 million adults 18-49 and 3.0 million adults 18-34, becoming the number one series telecast in network history among all key demos. The episode is poised to be the #1 show on television, broadcast or cable, last night.”

That is, quite frankly, insane.

Look at last night’s broadcast ratings to see how much that show dominated: America’s Got Talent was watched by 9.28 million people, and Big Brother was watched by just 5.99 million people, though those shows aired at different times than each other and Duck Dynasty. Also, AMC was thrilled by ratings for Breaking Bad‘s final season, and it was watched by 5.9 million viewers.

In his fake press release quote, A&E’s GM and EVP David McKillop said, “Thanks to its authentic and engaging characters ‘Duck Dynasty’ has become more than just a reality show, it is a cultural phenomenon.”

Yes, it is a phenomenon, but it is also “more than just a reality show.” Can we really say that it’s the “number one nonfiction series telecast” when what we see is scripted and not true? At best, it’s like Curb Your Enthusiasm, scripted scenarios based on real life that are improvised by actors who often play themselves.

Then again, what makes Duck Dynasty work is its cast, who are, yes, “authentic and engaging,” in no small part because they pull off acting better than any other reality stars who are asked to act by producers and networks who want to shortcut the process of creating outstanding nonfiction.

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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.