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Duck Dynasty Before They Were Stars

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Duck Dynasty Before They Were Stars, Forget the ZZ Top beards and the Bayou accents, the Robertsons of West Monroe, La., are a family of traditional American entrepreneurs: ambitious, rich and spectacularly successful.

Willie and Korie Robertson at Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting. The retailer carries “Duck Dynasty” merchandise in six separate departments.

And that was true even before they were television stars.

They certainly are stars now – the subjects of the biggest reality show hit in the history of cable television, “Duck Dynasty,” which has shattered ratings records this summer, reaching a high of 11.8 million viewers for the season premiere this month.

But in the more contained world of ducks, guns and camouflage gear, the Robertsons were already celebrities thanks to the family’s core business: sales of duck gear, especially duck calls.

Now the range of merchandise attached to the Robertson name is so vast – shirts, caps, coolers, books, edibles, hunting gear of every kind – that keeping track of it has become almost impossible, said Willie Robertson, scion of the Robertson clan and president of the Duck Commander company.

Last week, he was at the corporate headquarters of Walmart and was surprised to see his face on a garden gnome. “I knew I had a Chia Pet and a bobblehead and an action figure,” Mr. Robertson said by phone. “I didn’t know I had a garden gnome. That’s awesome. I guess Pez dispenser is the last weird thing I have to see myself on.”

Chances are that pitch will come shortly. “Every day I get pitched on this, pitched on that,” Mr. Robertson said. “It’s like you’re living in a movie.”

That movie is mostly a creation of Mr. Robertson and his family, a conscious dive into the entertainment world that has lifted a regional business into an international phenomenon. The show is seen in more than 100 countries, drawing strong ratings on networks from England to Latin America.

The show does well across this country, though as might be expected, it fares best in the South, with Atlanta, Knoxville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala., among the top locations in ratings.

“I thought we were booming before,” Mr. Robertson said. “Booming is a relative term.”

The family-owned business has private sales figures, but Mr. Robertson offered some indications of the level of growth. “I’ve seen figures of 2,200 percent growth,” he said.

“You couldn’t chart it as far as where we have had business growth. It’s bursting at every level, every store.”

Sales of duck calls to actual hunters are now a minority, he said, with the dominant buyers being people who “put it on their desk and toot on it.”

Sarah McKinney, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said the company’s stores across the country stocked “Duck Dynasty” merchandise in six separate departments.

T-shirts featuring “Duck Dynasty” characters are now the top sellers, Ms. McKinney said, among women and girls as well as men. And sales of “Duck” back-to-school material have soared this year, she said.

“Duck Dynasty” began on the A&E network after some members of the family appeared for three seasons on an Outdoor Channel show tailored more specifically to actual duck hunting. David McKillop, the general manager of A&E, said the network viewed a tape and realized the potential for his channel was in the family interaction.

After what he called “a vision meeting” with Mr. Robertson, A&E commissioned two pilots. The second ended with a scene of the family gathered around the dinner table.

That clicked. A&E saw an overarching theme: “A cross between ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘The Waltons.’ ” A family dinner would cap each episode, Mr. McKillop said. “It would be like, ‘Goodnight, John-Boy.’ ”

Willie Robertson is not reticent about his own role in building what is now an imposing duck-centric empire. The family business was started by his father, Phil, a Louisiana football standout who translated an obsession with hunting ducks into the now enormous duck-call business.

Willie Robertson credits some of his business acumen to experience he gained in his 20s after he left the family company to run a children’s camp business.

“I was able to watch the family business from afar,” he said. “I was able to come in with a lot of energy and a vision for growing it even bigger.”

When Mr. Robertson returned to Duck Commander, he realized his father had created a strong brand, but “he had pretty much run out of ideas,” Mr. Robertson said.

“He didn’t know how to take it to the next level, and it might have started a downward slide, like a lot of family businesses do.”

Mr. Robertson had a personal interest in entertainment, especially comedy. He was a fan of “Saturday Night Live.” He watched “American Idol” to determine what it was that attracted huge audiences.

He saw the large Robertson brood as a family of characters. The first show on the Outdoor Channel (called “Duck Commander”) was focused heavily on hunting, but Willie Robertson steered it toward purer entertainment.

“I heard you should edit for women and children,” he said.

The concept for the new show would center on “family and funny,” he said. “I’m sure if you just saw headshots of us you wouldn’t deduct that was going to come out of that.”

But he had to overcome one area of opposition. Phil Robertson, the patriarch, did not want to do the show. “He said, ‘I’m already as famous as I want to be.’ I explained to him: ‘Phil, this can expand your platform to talk about the things you like to talk about.’ ”

Those things, for the most part, are faith-based. Phil Robertson is increasingly dedicated to preaching, something he has mentioned he would prefer to be doing with most of his time. (Last week, a YouTube video posted in 2010 went viral, showing him denouncing abortion rights during a guest speaking appearance.)

“We’re believers in the Lord,” Willie Robertson said. “We think he set this all up for us.”

But A&E is not looking for a religious show. “The show is not about their beliefs,” Mr. McKillop said, with emphasis.

Mr. Robertson generally agrees. He says he has had to remind his father that he is not “Pat Robertson – and this is not the ’700 Club.’ It’s a comedy show.”

Mr. Robertson added, “If you find something attractive about our family, how we stay together and eat dinner together and laugh and have fun, you may want to keep some of these principles in mind. We’re Christians, that’s part of the package. But if that doesn’t turn you on, fine. If you just want to laugh at it, that’s O.K.”

Given the potent appeal of “Duck Dynasty,” the prospect for many more seasons – and merchandise sales – seems promising.

Adam Hanft, a brand strategist, suggested the Robertsons have some important decisions to make. “Do they want to be a trend or a long-term brand?”

The latter requires “strategic thinking,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to say no when everyone wants more of you.”

A&E certainly wants more “Duck Dynasty” – fast. The network has managed to churn out four seasons of the show in just 18 months. Mr. McKillop said, “We’re in a great place with them for multiple more seasons.”

Mr. Robertson said: “At first the money was a big factor. We all love making money. But at some point I don’t know how much you need. The cool part is that unlike other entertainment genres, we’re always in this together as a family.”

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