But it now looks like they did.
Robertson, the long-bearded patriarch of the clan of Louisiana duck-call merchants, is on "hiatus" from filming episodes of the No. 1-rated cable reality show after giving a GQ magazine interview where he made anti-gay remarks and questioned the need for the civil-rights movement. GLAAD and the NAACP, among others, condemned the comments. But thousands of fans - and even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal - have rushed to his defense, touching off the latest skirmish in the national culture war. Late Thursday, the family said it might not want to continue the show without Phil.
The scandal has turned into the kind of tempest network executives feared all along. A&E knew of Robertson's controversial views - expounded in videotaped sermons and elsewhere - before the show premiered in spring 2012, and warned him not to overshare on hot-button topics such as gay rights and race relations, according to a producer familiar with the situation. Phil and other family members also probably signed contracts containing "morals clauses" in which they promised to, among other things, avoid anything that would embarrass or bring shame to A&E or the brand. Such clauses are standard in the entertainment and sports industries.
In essence, the network was asking Phil - a man of legendary individuality, who once passed up an opportunity to sign with the NFL because it might interfere with his hunting - to be somewhat less Phil-like. But that is the kind of wobbly bargain that reality TV producers have been forced to make. If they bought the show, they were getting a volatile personality in the mix. A&E could of course have walked away - but that would have meant passing over a potential TV phenomenon, which is what the Robertsons became.
For some time, Phil Robertson held up his end of the speak-no-evil bargain. But that's over now, obviously.
Neither of two A&E spokespersons responded to three emails requesting comment Friday. In a statement earlier this week, A&E said it was "extremely disappointed" to read the GQ interview. Note, however, that the statement did not say "extremely surprised." The network knew all along about Robertson's views, because he's not shy about sharing them. Executives just hoped he wouldn't say them again when a tape recorder was turned on.
What happens to "Duck Dynasty" now is anyone's guess. The situation is a Yuletide mess engulfing numerous big companies. Wal-Mart shelves are stocked high with "Duck Dynasty" merchandise that A&E arranged through lucrative licensing deals worth $400 million this year alone, according to Forbes (the family, which earns at least $200,000 per episode for appearing in the show, takes a cut too). "Duck the Halls," their new holiday record with guest shots from Alison Krauss and Luke Bryan, is put out by Universal Music Group. And of course, A&E is a 50-50 partnership between Hearst Corp. and Disney.
So, his appearance notwithstanding, no one should assume that Phil Robertson doesn't know corporate. He just moseyed straight to the business-affairs department and ignored the boring PR part.
And now A&E is learning what it means when your business partner does that.
What do you think of the "Duck Dynasty" uproar?