Like everyone else, James Marchington has been watching Duck Dynasty – and thinks UK shooting channels could learn a trick or two
Publishers’ meetings can be depressing affairs these days. It’s not just shooting magazines – the whole publishing industry is battling through the biggest change since the invention of the printing press.
Picture the scene at the dingy offices of Fieldsporting Gunshooter. A handful of people shift uncomfortably in their seats around an oval conference table. On the wall, a Powerpoint slide displays a sales graph you could ski down. The magazine editor and advertising manager stare blankly at the wilting pot-plant on the windowsill as the publishing director thumps the table: “We need to appeal to the YouTube generation!”
The editor’s heart sinks. He knows what that means: he’ll have to persuade his staff to shoot some wobbly handycam video and post it on the magazine’s YouTube channel. As if they didn’t have enough to do already, with updating a website and social media pages, on top of producing the magazine – a job that used to keep them fully occupied when they had 50 per cent more staff and double the budget to spend.
The end product, unsurprisingly, doesn’t knock the socks off the YouTube generation. It’s the same shooting magazine fare, recycled in video format with rock-bottom production values. Didactic instructional videos in which the ‘expert’ shows us the right way to open a gate; hunting tales devoid of context to the kill shot, or where the cameras miss the shot entirely; product reviews where the presenter might as well be reading the manufacturer’s press release, and indeed probably is.
Then out of nowhere comes Duck Dynasty. The poor editor of Fieldsporting Gunshooter holds his head in despair – any time now the publishing director will be showing him Duck Dynasty’s viewing figures, telling him, “That’s the sort of numbers we need!” Duck Dynasty is indeed a remarkable phenomenon, and one that nails most of the received wisdom about shooting in the media.
In case you have been living under a stone, or the October not-quite-a-hurricane permanently cut off your electricity, let me explain. Duck Dynasty is a reality TV series, on the US TV channel Arts & Entertainment Network. The series follows the lives of the redneck, duck-shooting, camo-clad and impressively bearded Robertson family in Louisiana, who went from rags to riches by making and selling duck calls. It is massively successful – with latest viewing figures of 13 million, it’s outstripped X Factor in the US. It’s already being called ‘the most popular show on TV’ and keeps on smashing new records. We’ve come to expect this kind of phenomenon in the US, but Duck Dynasty is pulling big audiences here in the UK, too. A typical episode, on at 10pm on a Thursday in October on the History Channel, attracted 120,000 viewers. That’s hardly Great British Bake-Off territory (7.4 million), but they’re numbers that the publishing director of Fieldsporting Gunshooter would sell his granny for.
There is nothing real about reality TV, of course. Every episode is carefully crafted, lines are scripted and events are staged. Filming for the show involves a massive production team with multiple cameras, lighting and sound engineers. The production budget doesn’t bear thinking about – it would probably buy a UK shooting magazine outright.
So our home shooting magazines are not going to produce anything on the scale of Duck Dynasty anytime soon. But maybe they might learn something from the show’s success over here. There are plenty of lessons to be had. Not least, that captivating TV is about characters. You don’t get a great sports programme by sending a cameraman to run around behind the players on a football field, and a reality show doesn’t consist of Ma cooking breakfast and serving it up accompanied by a voice-over describing what we can see on the screen for ourselves. It’s about the interactions between Ma and the ungrateful kids, their ne’er-do-well father and the thieving dog, with a sub-plot about the daughter’s unsuitable boyfriend and the impending car crash of the in-laws coming to visit.
That’s more easily done with a massive budget, a huge crew and an army of scriptwriters. But it can be done effectively in a modest way – you simply need a few characters who don’t mind having fun poked at them, and the vision to see what you’re trying to achieve. Most of all, it needs to be planned and scripted. Great TV doesn’t happen by accident. As anyone who has sat through a friend’s holiday slideshow knows, something that was thrilling for the participants can make very dull viewing.
The other lesson we can learn from Duck Dynasty is that the viewing public doesn’t give a flying duck about live shooting, at least not on its own. They get angry or bored with people who are dull, arrogant, privileged or elitist. But rednecks shooting birds and eating them? That’s what they do. They make for strange but compelling television.
As for safety and etiquette, the public don’t know and don’t care. They can’t tell a safe shot from a dangerous one, and they have no concept of what is sporting and what isn’t. They roll with laughter at escapades such as the beaver hunt in a recent Duck Dynasty episode, where the boys go after the pesky beavers with semi-autos, homemade bombs and a flamethrower. It’s even more hilarious because despite the boys being armed to the teeth, the beavers still give them the runaround. Try to imagine one of the UK shooting magazines producing a video along those lines. Of course they wouldn’t. Their readers would raise hell about the harm to the image of shooting – ‘ammunition for the antis’. And yet, Duck Dynasty is doing nothing but good for the public acceptance of shooting, both here and in the States.
The antis whinge occasionally – the famously miserable singer and animal rights campaigner Morrissey refused to appear on an American TV talk show alongside the Duck Dynasty boys, calling them “animal serial killers”. The next episode of Duck Dynasty smashed all the viewing records with 8.6 million viewers, making it cable’s biggest reality show of the year. And all that without once uttering the words “safety is paramount” or “we always strive for a clean kill”. It’s a funny old world.