The suspension of American TV personality Phil Robertson from hit reality show Duck Dynasty for making anti-gay comments sparked a politically charged debate about religion and tolerance and cast doubt on the series' future.
The controversy put A&E, part-owned by Disney, in the awkward position of coming up with a palatable response possibly to the detriment of the US cable channel's most popular show, which is scheduled to begin its fifth season on January 15. The show airs in Hong Kong on the History channel.
Robertson, patriarch of the backwater Louisiana clan on the reality show about hunting, fishing and domestic squabbles, was put on indefinite "hiatus" by A&E for his remarks to GQ magazine characterising homosexuality as sinful behaviour.
"Start with homosexual behaviour and just morph from there," Robertson, 67, said when asked what is sinful. "Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."
A&E said it was disappointed after reading Robertson's remarks, which it added were his personal views. "The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely," it said.
Duck Dynasty, one of cable TV's top non-sports shows, has turned its bearded stars into celebrities and spawned hundreds of merchandise items, from sporting goods and apparel to camouflage reclining furniture. The merchandise has brought in some US$400 million in sales, according to Forbes magazine.
That figure, along with the show's top-dog status at A&E, shows that the network believed Robertson's comments were more serious than the financial hit it might take, said Craig Detweiler, a professor at California's Pepperdine University, who specialises in media and religion.
"It's fascinating to see A&E in a sense pulling a plug on their most profitable franchise," he said. "You see them choosing politics over economics."
Reaction to Robertson's comments was swift, with gay rights group GLAAD condemning the remarks while conservative politicians defended Robertson.
Former US Republican vice- presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal both leapt to the star's side, saying he was a victim of political correctness.
"Free speech is an endangered species: Those 'intolerants' hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all," tweeted Palin.
Jindal, also a Republican and possible 2016 US presidential candidate, criticised A&E's reaction and described Robertson and his family, who turned their animal-call company Duck Commander into a hunting industry leader, as "great citizens of the state of Louisiana".
"The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with," Jindal said in a statement.
Petitions started at Change.org and by Christian consumer group Faith Driven Consumer have each received more than 50,000 signatures demanding Robertson return to the show.
Nevertheless, the series' future could be in doubt unless Robertson recants, said celebrity branding expert Mark Pasetsky.
"It would be really difficult for any corporation to back this show on an ongoing basis," Pasetsky said. "He has to apologise specifically for what he said."