LOS ANGELES - "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson will return to work on A&E's reality show despite his comments about gay immorality, the channel said Friday, reversing its decision to suspend him after facing a boycott backlash.
In a statement Friday, A&E said it was bringing Robertson back after discussions with his Louisiana family featured in the hit reality series and "numerous advocacy groups."
Last week, the channel had put Robertson on what it called an indefinite "hiatus" because of his comments in a GQ magazine article that the Bible views gays as sinners akin to adulterers, prostitutes and swindlers.
A&E said it decided to drop Robertson from the show about a wealthy family that makes duck calls because it is part of a company whose core values are "centered around creativity, inclusion and mutual respect."
While reiterating that Robertson's views are not those of the channel, A&E noted Friday that he has publicly said he would "never incite or encourage hate." The show itself is more than one man's views, it added.
"It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family, a family that America has come to love. As you might have seen in many episodes, they come together to reflect and pray for unity, tolerance and forgiveness," A&E said.
The Robertson family said it had no immediate comment Friday.
Robertson's remarks in GQ were quickly slammed by groups including GLAAD, the gay rights group, which responded critically to A&E's decision Friday.
"If dialogue with Phil is not part of (the) next steps then A&E has chosen profits over African-American and gay people -- especially its employees and viewers," GLAAD said, referring to Robertson's comment to GQ that he never saw "the mistreatment of any black person" and that the ones he picked cotton with in the pre-Civil Rights South were happy.
But A&E's move against Robertson provoked a flood of support from those who share his views and others who defended his freedom of speech.
Within a day, more than a half-million people liked an impromptu Facebook page demanding A&E be boycotted until he returns. A petition calling for A&E to bring him back reached 250,000 signatures and counting in about a week.
While TV ratings tend to fluctuate, particularly during the holidays when viewing drops, the overall A&E audience was smaller after it landed in "Duck" soup than before.
For the week of Dec. 16-22, the channel averaged 1.5 million viewers, compared to 2 million for the week before, according to Nielsen figures.
During the week of Dec. 17-23 last year, a roughly comparable period to the post-Robertson flap period, the channel averaged 17.3 million viewers.
"Duck Dynasty" is the channel's highest-rated program and set a reality show record for cable with nearly 12 million viewers for its fourth-season debut this past summer.
Randy Schmidt, a "Duck Dynasty" fan in Illinois, said he's glad to see Robertson return to the show that Schmidt said has "Christian values."
He didn't care for Robertson's comments but he has a right to express his opinions, Schmidt said, adding that he's likely not the only one pleased about Robertson's return.
"A&E's pocketbook will be happy, too," he predicted.
Robertson's well-known supporters included former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who complained that his free-speech rights were being trampled. Bobby Jindal, governor of the state of Louisiana, complained that Miley Cyrus got a pass for twerking on TV while Phil got shown the door.
Last week, the family said in a statement on its Duck Commander website (http://bit.ly/1c5vI5G ) that although some of Phil Robertson's comments were coarse, "his beliefs are grounded" in the Bible and he "is a Godly man." They also said that "as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm."
"Duck Dynasty" is on hiatus until Jan. 15, and the network has said that nine of next season's 10 episodes have already been filmed. That means Robertson likely wasn't needed in front of the camera before next March.
A&E said it intended to launch a national public service campaign "promoting unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people."