Truth Is, TV Is Not Quite Southern-Fried

A&E last week gave a series order to Big Smo, a follow-doc about a Tennessee “hick-hop” artist and his family. The order represents a return to a well that has been very good to the network—the “redneck reality” genre of which A&E’s own Duck Dynasty, about Louisiana’s camouflage-clad Robertson clan, remains the biggest hit.

“Like all cable networks, A&E specifically is most concerned with finding the big, loud characters, and right now at this moment, a lot of these characters are coming from the South,” says Drew Tappon, VP of nonfiction and alternative programming for A&E.

Other programming executives appear to agree. Last month, truTV gave a series order to The Safecrackers, about “a pair of Alabama locksmiths who specialize in opening even the toughest of vaults.” In December, CMT announced orders for seven new shows including My Big Redneck Wedding, Tobacco Wars and Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Ranch. A look at the current lineups of the top-rated cable nets reveals titles such as Swamp People, Clash of the Ozarks and, of course, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. (CMT, notably, embraces the term “redneck” even in show titles, though it is still seen as disparaging in many circles.)

As with many programming trends, the risk of saturation is everpresent. But for now, the prevailing wisdom is to stay with the hot hand.

“There’s a lot of reasons behind why these shows are connecting, probably chief among them that this audience was underserved for quite some time pre-2008, prerecession,” says Jayson Dinsmore, CMT executive VP of development. Southern-based shows appeal to viewers who place a high priority on family values, outdoor lifestyles and authenticity. “Most of the things you watched on television were about excess and materialism,” Dinsmore says. “Then shortly after 2008, there was a major shift in the economics of the country where people wanted to get back to basics and live a more simple life.”

Brent Montgomery is the owner of Leftfield Pictures, producer of Discovery’s Clash of the Ozarks and CMT’s Guntucky. He traces the roots of such series back to the appearance of Southern characters on The Real World, Big Brother and Survivor.

“You were seeing a sort of Southern flair in format shows, and then one or two of these [Southern] shows started to pop,” Montgomery says. Since then, networks have occasionally backed away from Southern series, but they continue to return to what’s proved to be a durable genre. “Every time the networks want to say, ‘Oh, that space, that sort of Southern redneck space, is dead,’ here comes Duck Dynasty, the biggest show in cable history.”

Like Dinsmore, Montgomery sees Southern shows as being of the cultural moment. But Montgomery rejects the “redneck” label. “I think it’s people having fun and living life on their own terms,” he says. “Not all of them have all of their teeth, but there’s more to life than just teeth.”

End of Days

To land hit ratings, Southern shows must be able to reach large audiences beyond the South. For the most successful of these series, Tappon says the South is a backdrop, not a barrier.

“We have a great audience concentration in the South, so that helps,” Tappon says. “I think the Robertsons transcend a Southern show, because their characters are relatable to everyone, whether you grew up in Cape Cod or in Los Angeles or in Louisiana. You can all see something that’s relatable in that family.”

Fewer people, however, are relating to the Robertsons these days. Duck Dynasty’s fifth season premiered Jan. 15 to 8.5 million total viewers in Nielsen live-plus-same-day numbers— enough to outperform 11 of the 15 broadcast series that aired that evening, but down 28% from the record-breaking season four premiere. That episode still holds the title for the largest audience for an unscripted episode in cable history.

What the gray in Duck Dynasty’s beard portends for the genre remains to be seen. Neither programmers nor producers appear to be cooling on the South just yet. But neither are they naïve about TV’s cyclical nature.

“If you bring in great characters and you bring in a great format, then I assume that they’ll continue to order them,” Montgomery says. “But absolutely, there is a saturation level that’s probably being pushed to the outer limits right now in the South.”