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‘Duck Dynasty’ followed by more rural, hard-partying TV ducklings

BY PATRICK RYAN

Gannett News Service

Down-home folks have staked their claim on reality TV, and they’re not flying the coop any time soon.

Ever since the Robertson family introduced America to its duck-call business on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” in 2012, a throng of rifle-toting, beer-chugging, rural (or “redneck”) successors have cropped up alongside them, from TLC’s “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” to MTV’s “Buckwild” to TLC’s recently axed “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

The hooch is still flowing this year: A&E’s “Country Buck$” is “Duck’s” companion, about a family hunting-gear business. And “Redneck Island,” “My Big Redneck Family” and “Party Down South 2” are part of CMT’s shift from country music to reality fare, mimicking its sibling network MTV.

“Party” (airing a five-episode marathon starting at 1:30 p.m. Saturday) brings together eight rowdy twentysomethings to live, date and booze together in Biloxi, Miss. Sound familiar? That may be because it’s produced by “Jersey Shore” creator SallyAnn Salsano, who caught flak for her representation of Italian-Americans (or “guidos”) on that long-running MTV series.

In its defense, “the show [was] not called ‘I Am From the Jersey Shore,’ it’s just these types of people really did go to the Jersey Shore and party,” Salsano says. “With ‘Party Down South,’ I have a great representation of people from the South. … I’m not saying everyone from the South is like that, but every single person from the South probably knows somebody or has an uncle or a cousin like somebody from that house.”

Country culture has long been a TV fixture, from 1946 soap opera “Faraway Hill” to boomer sitcoms “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.” But it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the genre got a reality-show spin, beginning with CMT’s “Trick My Truck” (a play on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”) and continuing with family-centric shows such as A&E’s “American Hoggers,” CMT’s “Bayou Billionaires” and History’s “Swamp People.”

<em>Phil Robertson on “Duck Dynasty.”</em> | A&amp;E
Phil Robertson on “Duck Dynasty.” | A&E

But as redneck stars are pushed further into the spotlight, so are their tragedies and missteps. “Duck Dynasty” saw a ratings nosedive when it returned for a fifth season in January, which may have resulted in part from patriarch Phil Robertson’s anti-gay remarks. “Buckwild” was canceled last year after the death of cast member Shain Gandee and two others in an off-roading accident, and TLC swiftly pulled the plug on “Honey Boo Boo” this fall when photos surfaced of star Mama June Shannon with a sex offender.

“A lot of the bad things that happen to not only ‘hicksploitation’ reality stars, but all reality stars, seem to happen after the first season,” says BuzzFeed News’ Ryan Broderick, who’s written about America’s redneck-TV obsession. “I think many of them feel pressured to live up to the brand that they’ve been turned into. … The cast members become more degrading, lower themselves further, basically they act stereotypically ‘more redneck’ than maybe they would because they’re being observed.”

CMT programmers say viewers warm to the characters despite unflattering portrayals of Southern culture. “There’s an initial negative reaction to some of these shows, and then over the course of a short period of time, you’ll see people come on board and start appreciating the shows for what they are,” says Jayson Dinsmore, CMT’s program-development chief.

And like other groups that become subjects of reality shows, such as African-Americans (“Love and Hip-Hop”), the Amish (“Breaking Amish”) or polygamists (“Sister Wives”), people tune in to see themselves on screen or the extremes of another culture.

Which is why they’ll continue, if not at the dizzying ratings heights once enjoyed by “Dynasty” and “Honey Boo Boo,” says TV historian Tim Brooks.

“With most types of reality shows, they have their burst of popularity, then they recede, but they never go away,” Brooks says. “Rural or ‘hillbilly’ shows will be with us for a long, long time. There’s a lot of opportunities for a smaller network — maybe a CMT or one whose audience naturally fits this — to have shows like this on the air indefinitely.”