From Duck Dynasty to the Ivory Tower

The TV phenomenon that is Duck Dynasty made ratings history last month when it became the most watched reality show in cable TV, pulling in nearly 12 million viewers. Even bigger news than its ratings is how. According to one fan, the show returns viewers "to what's important. Church, Family, Fun." As if to epitomize the Louisiana duck call-magnate Robertson family's Ozzie and Harriet quality, each episode ends with the family around the dinner table, giving thanks. That's right: The program's success is its homespun charm and wit, not the usual reality show diet of fights, backstabbing, ridicule, nudity, or ginned-up conflict. And the program's popularity is not confined to red-state America; it's a hit nationwide.

In its own way, we here in upstate New York have our own successful reality show based on an appeal to, as Lincoln said, "the better angels of our nature," but of the egghead, news wonk variety. It's called the Ivory Tower (formerly The Ivory Tower Half Hour).

In 2002, the dean of Syracuse University's highly regarded Newhouse School of Public Communications, David Rubin, had an idea: put a panel of five professors from area colleges on air for 30 minutes to discuss the week's news, and have them each finish with A's and F's -- a high and a low grade for two deserving targets. And as if to underscore the program's seemingly pompous, ponderous, and pretentious format, it aired (where else?) on the local public broadcasting station.

Now if the idea of political scientists, historians, and a lawyer discussing and dissecting the week's news prompts you to pull out your pillows and blankets, here's the shocker: People started watching. The Ivory Tower's no Downton Abbey, but within several years, it was drawing not only a respectable audience, but measurable Nielsen ratings: a four share, meaning of all the TV sets turned on in our area (with maybe 500 channels to choose from), 4 percent tuned in to the Ivory Tower, reaching at times over 11,000 viewers. For local programming of any type, these are remarkable numbers. In fact, in recent years, it has become the most highly watched local program among all the local network affiliate stations.

Here's how the show works: On Wednesday mornings, moderator Rubin emails us a list of possible stories from the week on a range of topics, from hard news to popular culture. We discuss and vote, picking three (in a recent week, the top stories were Syria, the death penalty, and Miley Cyrus's twerk moment). We prep on our own and film Friday morning for evening broadcast (and like good academics more interested in the pursuit of truth than profit, our pay consists of a muffin and coffee).

If there's one comment the show's participants have heard consistently over the last eleven years, it is that viewers appreciate the fact that we don't talk over each other, that we are respectful and thoughtful, if also lively, and have interesting and insightful things to say -- traits too rarely found on most talk news TV.

There's probably not much overlap between Duck Dynasty and Ivory Tower audiences (this writer excepted), but that's the point: Maybe there's a real yearning among viewers of all stripes for programming that's stimulating (in a non-Miley Cyrus way), constructive, and engaging -- that appeals our "better angels." The Ivory Tower will never go national, but if this local show demonstrates anything, it is that similar programming can work elsewhere around the country. At a time when local TV news viewership continues to slide, there's hardly a better time than now to "keep debate alive," as moderator Rubin says at the close of each show, about the pressing issues of the day in communities around the country.