A proposal for a TV show about a Louisiana family that makes duck calls didn't have to go far to find doubters. They were seated at the dinner table.
"I said, 'This will never work. Nobody's going to watch that,'" remembers Jase Robertson, who works for the family business. "My dad (Phil) echoed that. I think he said something along the lines of 'A redneck family, they're not going to run that.' "
Well, they did run it, and people watched. Lots of people. A&E's Duck Dynasty, which opens its fourth season Wednesday (10 p.m. ET/PT), has become a ratings phenomenon, ranking behind only AMC's zombie hit The Walking Dead last season among cable series.
The reality series that follows the bearded Robertson clan and their Monroe, La., outdoor sporting-goods business grew 95% in viewers last season, averaging 8.4 million viewers.
Dynasty is designed as a modern-day sitcom with a rich cast of characters including patriarch and duck-call creator Phil; his wife Kay and sons Willie, the CEO; Jase, who makes the duck calls but would rather be hunting or fishing; and Jep; and Phil's offbeat brother, Si.
The couple's oldest son, Alan -- uniquely clean-shaven -- joins the show in the fourth-season premiere, which features a surprise wedding-vow renewal ceremony for Phil and Kay on their 49th anniversary.
"He's kind of the troubled one in my family. He's good looking, he's clean shaven, he bathes regularly and he wears nice clothes. We've always tried to figure out what exactly is wrong with him," Jase says.
The show's success has much to do with how engaging the Robertsons are, says Andy Dehnart, editor of realityblurred.com, a blog about unscripted TV shows.
"The No. 1 thing is just that the cast members are really appealing, nice, funny, warm, awesome people to spend some time with on TV. I think that's what makes all the difference," he says.
Fans tweeted their feelings about the show to USA TODAY. Sherie Hinton of Fairfax, Va., says, "Watching (the) show takes u back to what's important. Church, Family, Fun," while Laura Hill of New Castle, Ind., relates to the tight-knit family you can love "even when you want to wring their necks like a duck."
That's a typical response: "We get that a lot on social media, 'How I wish this was my family,' which is the best compliment we can get," says A&E's reality-programming chief Lily Neumeyer, also an executive producer on the series.
Jase says he believes sincerity is the key. "I think the smartest thing we did was stay true to ourselves."
Producers get episode ideas from the family members, but the episodes resemble sitcom plots: Willie wants to lose weight before a reunion. Jase thinks Willie is going through a midlife crisis.
"We all sat down around a table and had them tell stories and we just listen. They always have the most amazing, funny stories and moments," she says.
Producers often re-create situations for the show, so like most such series it isn't entirely unscripted. Once the cameras are rolling, the Robertsons take it from there, Neumeyer says.
Still, when producers try to film or re-create events from their lives, family members don't necessarily go along with their plans. Jase says he's not told what to say and that he has balked at requests, refusing to wear knickers in an episode where he and Willie go golfing.
"A lot of the ideas that they have, they always take a turn somewhere because that's just not what we would do," he says. "I think it's difficult for them to trust us enough to know that they're going to get something they can use, and that's been the biggest battle. They want to control it, but we're uncontrollable. So, finding that balance is the genius part of the show."
Dynasty's success already is leading to imitators, Dehnart says, but it will be hard to reproduce the on-camera genuineness of the Robertsons. Discovery Channel on Tuesday unveiled Porter Ridge, a comedic series from Dynasty's producers that centers on an auto salvage yard business in the hills of Indiana.
"I fear for the day when a bunch of Duck Dynasty clones come on the air, in part, because it's lightning in a bottle," says Dehnart.
The family just got a big raise, Deadline.com reported Tuesday, enabling A&E to promise "several" more seasons of the show, but Jase dismisses reports of acrimony."We were having normal negotiations and people blew it out of proportion just for a story," he says. "A&E has been good to us. It says a lot of them to allow us to do what we do on the show, which is not normal television. They took a risk on us and we've been happy with them, and I think they've been happy with us."
The high profile has helped the family business, too, with many people who aren't hunters buying the duck calls and other items. A&E says an extensive line of merchandise is a big seller at WalMart and other big retailers. The family members are in demand at various events, and Willie and Si will appear, as other characters, on the season premiere of ABC's Last Man Standing (Sept. 20, 8 p.m. ET/PT).
"It's changed our lives, because I can't go to the grocery store without people gathering (around), but I think the difference in us and most people on TV is this was not something we set out as a goal," he says. "So, it didn't really taint the important things, our faith and our family and our perspective on life."
Bill Keveney, USA TODAY