The End of 'Keeping up With the Kardashians' Is Not That Huge

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

7 mins read

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This week’s announcement that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is ending was the perfect mirror for the show itself: Kim Kardashian West, Khloé Kardashian and Kris Jenner, the last three members of the family who even seemed to care about the show, posted a statement to their respective Instagram accounts. It was signed by the entire family—including Rob Kardashian, Kendall and Kylie Jenner and Scott Disick—even though the rest of the krew didn’t even acknowledge this seemingly momentous event on social. And there was plenty to prompt speculation.

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Like… Scott, eh? Is that a hint that he and Kourtney are back together? Does it mean anything that Kris and Kim used a season one promo that makes it clear Kim is the star of the show for their posts, while Khloé’s post was the statement? And of course, the big question: what’s going to happen next?

Don’t judge me too harshly for the speculation—I truly believe that everything this family does is carefully calibrated to maximize their fame, so I’m sure I was meant to wonder about all of those things. But that’s also why I don’t think fans (or haters) have anything to worry about. Yes, I know it seems like the end of an era, but honestly? If the medium is the message, then very little is going to change. KUWTK is ending because the Kardashian-Jenner media machine has ascended to a different level of celebrity and they just don’t need it anymore, not because they’re about to fade into pop culture obscurity. (I mean, really. With Kris Jenner at the helm? I think not.)

In fact, I’d argue that this is a natural progression in the family’s business model. At first, they needed the show and its many terrible spinoffs to build their profiles and garner other business opportunities. But that hasn’t been the case for years. As a 2015 New York Times profile of Kris pointed out, the world’s most famous momager has parlayed a reality TV version of the Brady Bunch into an industry—no, a “megacomplex” that rakes in millions of dollars.

“Without Kris, Kim might not have pulled in a reported $28 million in 2014,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote at the time. “Kendall wouldn’t necessarily be an in-demand model, walking runways for Chanel and Marc Jacobs and appearing on the covers of Allure and Harper’s Bazaar. There would most likely be no Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, a choose your own adventure [game app] that brought in many millions last year, or T-Mobile commercial, or book of selfies (Selfish), released this month. Kourtney and Khloé and Kim might not have three retail stores, named Dash, in Los Angeles, New York and Miami; a hair-and-makeup line, Kardashian Beauty; a bronzer line, Kardashian Glow; and Kardashian Kids, a children’s clothing line sold at Babies “R” Us and Nordstrom. Kendall and Kylie might not have licensing deals with PacSun, Steve Madden, Topshop and Sugar Factory, where they each have signature lollipops and several contractual agreements to appear at the candy stores.” Yes, some of those businesses have since shuttered, but that very long list that doesn’t even take into account all the businesses the family has launched since 2015: Kylie Cosmetics, KKW Beauty, SKIMS, Good American, Kylie’s Rise and Shine merch, Twisted Love (that’s Khloé’s true crime series) and, ugh, Poosh. (I’m sorry, Kourtney, but it’s just not good.)

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I get why they kept KUWTK going for longer than they really had to, though. The benefits may have been incremental, but they still outweighed the costs. Now, that math is changing. When season 18 premiered in March, it had moved from its place of honour on Sunday nights to Thursday nights, which some reality TV experts thought might be due to a dip in ratings. It’s still one of the most-watched shows of 2019-2020, but according to the Los Angeles Times, the show’s “ratings peaked with the Season 4 finale in February 2010, which had 4.8 million total viewers, according to Nielsen numbers. The most recent episode had just 810,000 total viewers.”

Does it still make sense to pour so many resources into creating a show that fewer people are watching, especially if you can reach them elsewhere? My friend Ishani Nath, an entertainment and lifestyle journalist who is one of my go-tos for TV thoughts, doesn’t think so. “The reason the show is so deeply irrelevant is that there is a shift in power with the rise of social media,” she says.

“The show is called Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but at this point, watching the show does not help you keep up with the Kardashians. If you want to do that, you have to follow them on Instagram. We knew about Kim getting robbed in Paris months before it aired on the show. So, as much as the show was a platform for their celebrity, it has actually already been replaced in a way that they control almost exclusively.”

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I agree. That ratings drop isn’t about people disengaging with the Kardashians; it’s people disengaging with TV. So, ending the show is just a move toward a business model where the family monetizes their audiences directly instead of through a third party. In that way, it’s not dissimilar to what has happened in magazines, where companies don’t need publications to reach audiences anymore and can instead use their social media platforms to engage with them directly. The Kardashians are L’Oreal in this scenario, or maybe Nike, whose advertisements double as content. Only for the Kardashians, it’s the opposite: their content—from Kylie’s YouTube channel to their own Instagram accounts—doubles as advertising for their many businesses. And that is not going to stop, especially not if Kim really is aiming to turn herself into a “lifestyle guru,” as Vanity Fair put it.

Of course, as Ishani pointed out in one of several conversations we had about the Kardashians this week, one thing is going to change: “They are no longer willing to work with a camera crew to protect the people in their lives.” That’s true, but I’m not sure how different that will actually be for viewers. After all, the family has always negotiated what they’d show and what they wouldn’t. Camera crews for sure caught Lamar Odom’s drug use, but it wasn’t in the show, for example. Neither was Kim being robbed in Paris. And, this summer TMZ reported that Kim won’t allow Kanye’s bipolar disorder to be a storyline on the show. Their audiences are already used to the family shaping narratives, so I’m not sure that it really matters whether it happens in real time (or, close to real time) on Instagram or packaged into an episode of KUWTK.

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In fact, there may even be less of an expectation of transparency on social media. I don’t think anyone actually expects to see reality represented on Instagram, so if Kim decides not to post about Kanye’s mental health, or Kourtney and Scott flirt in their respective comment sections to keep us guessing, no one’s going to think it’s weird or accuse them of faking a storyline. That’s just how we use these platforms.

So, in conclusion: this is actually the most Kardashian move ever. It’s guaranteed to make them lots of money—and don’t worry, we’ll still have plenty to talk about.

And Did You Hear About…

This moving essay by New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan about what she did to try to protect her mom, who has ALS, from COVID-19—and how her efforts attracted the attention of Chinese nationalists.

The “villain edit” on reality TV. That’s when a show’s editors cut together footage to make a contestant look bad for a storyline, and this really smart Them article looks at just who gets one on Drag Race. (Spoiler: Racialized and/or fat queens.)

Writer Madelyn Chung’s excellent article on Jessica Mulroney’s comeback, and what it really means to be cancelled.

The white Tiktok star who tried to convince people Ashanti’s “Foolish” was her song 😂🙄

The recent criticism of Lovecraft Country’s transphobia.

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