At a store specializing in duck calls and similar sundries, spring and summer are usually slow — duck-hunting season is winter. But things are different when you're a duck-call retailer with a reality show on a major cable network.
"I wasn't sure that a guy would buy a duck call just because he liked the show," says Willie Robertson, CEO of The Duck Commander, the West Monroe sporting goods empire featured on the A&E series Duck Dynasty. Since the show premiered March 21, Robertson says, orders have been pouring in from all over the U.S. and Canada. "Don't know if they're using them or not, but they're certainly buying them."
Promoted as a rags-to-riches story, the show depicts Robertson and his thickly bearded and heavily accented brother, father and uncle — along with the men's wives and children — as they run the family business started by patriarch Phil, who went from humble beginnings to small-town fame with his handmade duck calls. The family is wealthy but still has the kind of backwoods sensibility that makes for good television. In one episode, Willie — who has no experience as a vintner — decides to buy an out-of-use vineyard, and the men earnestly attempt to make a batch of wine using crates of store-bought grapes and sacks of granulated sugar.
Duck Dynasty is one of the latest in a crop of reality series set in Louisiana that make up a large percentage of cable television's nonscripted offerings. Vulture, New York magazine's pop culture blog, recently created a Venn diagram illustrating current reality shows, and shows set in Louisiana constituted one of the larger circles, right behind shows about "weddings" and "wars" — "wars" of the shipping, storage and cupcake variety, not actual combat.
The series Swamp People, which follows alligator hunters in the Atchafalaya River Basin swamp and was the first in the current shows-about-Cajuns trend, set a ratings record for History (the former History Channel). The 2010 season premiere of Swamp People garnered 4.2 million viewers, making the network No. 1 in its time slot and History's most successful launch of an original series. The show, now in its third season, is still popular. The premieres of CMT's Bayou Billionaires, a Beverly Hillbillies-esque story of a Shreveport family that became instantly wealthy after discovering their home sits on a natural gas well, along with My Big Redneck Vacation, which followed Louisiana swamp folks on a jaunt to the Hamptons, brought strong ratings for the network. Like sister networks VH1 and MTV, CMT originally started as a music-focused channel (it stands for Country Music Television) but has drifted into reality programming, with its two Louisiana shows being its biggest hits so far in that category. Over on A&E, the 2009 premiere of Steven Seagal: Lawman, set in Jefferson Parish, was the most-watched series launch in that network's history at that time. In the same vein of shows geared toward men, Spike TV now has Big Easy Justice, produced by Al Roker and starring local bounty hunter Tat-2 (Eugene Thacker). Others include the Discovery Channel's Ragin' Cajuns, History's Cajun Pawn Stars and the Travel Channel's Girls, Guns and Gators.
While shows set in Louisiana's bayous and swamps became popular, others depicting New Orleans through the lens of Carnival beads and artificially colored Bourbon Street cocktails began to crop up. In 2010, MTV brought its flagship The Real World back to the city for its 24th season (the ninth season of the series also was set in New Orleans). Much to the chagrin of Kenner residents, Oxygen filmed the 2011 season of its popular series Bad Girls Club in a mansion in Kenner's Chateau Estates (but, of course, called the season Bad Girls Club: New Orleans). The AMC-owned network WeTV debuted Big Easy Brides in August 2011, depicting the colorful marriage ceremonies at a French Quarter wedding chapel, like a Hand Grenade-soaked version of Say Yes to the Dress. VH1 currently is airing Tough Love, a dating show that was filmed in a house on the edge of the French Quarter.
At this point, reality shows set in Louisiana represent all the major reality show categories, aside from shows about cakes — although Haydel's Bakery, purveyor of king cakes, produced its own reality show, Piece of Cake, that aired locally on WVUE.
Bayou Billionaires executive producer Brian Flanagan, who was instrumental in the creation of Swamp People and whose Magilla Entertainment is responsible for Moonshiners, Long Island Medium and other nonscripted series, believes reality shows have helped improve their scripted counterparts.
"With scripted television, every year there'd be 150 pilots, and maybe two of them would turn into series and most of them would die, or go a season and they would die, and it was a lot of bad scripted TV," he says. "And all of the sudden networks realized they could spend a lot less money on nonscripted and get a lot more product for it, and these things are becoming successful, and scripted actually got better because of it. And here we now find only a handful of scripted shows coming out a year that are all really, really great and we all really love to watch. I like it because I like the immediacy of it," Flanagan added. "You can have an idea, go meet somebody if you find the right character, get them into a TV show within a few months and can get it on the air, and you can have a hit on your hands."
Besides being an economical choice for networks, the voyeuristic nature of reality TV also speaks to the ultra-documented ethos of our times.
"There are a lot of technological changes that happened in the last decade," says Lily Neumeyer, A&E's vice president of nonfiction and alternative programming and executive producer of Duck Dynasty. "Everyone has a camera, everyone has YouTube. So it's like we, as individuals, are all in our own reality TV show all the time. It's something that we as individuals in 2012 see as normal.
"We are all wired, so that's part of why it's not a trend, it's about a genre that's not going anywhere."
Part of Louisiana's reality TV boom can be attributed to the Louisiana Motion Picture Tax Incentive Act, which offers tax breaks to filmmakers who shoot movies in Louisiana.
In 2002, when he was a state senator, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne authored the legislation in hopes of creating a sustainable moviemaking workforce.
When it comes to reality TV, Dardenne says he worries about some of the tawdrier programming (though he admits to being a fan of Swamp People), but sees the shows as a whole to be positive advertisement for the state and spotlights cultures and habitats that are a draw for tourists.
"These shows are going to happen because of tax credits, because of the public's apparent thirst for these kind of shows," he says. "They're commercially successful. ... What we're trying to take advantage of in this heyday of reality TV is to convince people ... looking for authenticity and adventure that Louisiana has that to offer."
Filmmaker Melissa Caudle, who has written a number of books on reality TV and whose film and television company On the Lot Productions is working on three unscripted projects set in Louisiana — River Kings, The Baker Girls: Sealed with a Kiss and Reel Um In — says the tax credits have been an incentive for production companies.
"There's an interest in our diversity of culture that Louisiana has to offer," Caudle says, adding that the recovery after Hurricane Katrina "has become a story in itself of people surviving and overcoming all of the adversity and hardships, and people are naturally attracted to those types of people. When the Louisiana tax structure started, that opened up the floodgates for reality shows."