In October, the Kardashians will officially celebrate 10 years on television. In that time, the family has managed to cram 13 seasons’ worth of bickering, bonding, pregnancies, weddings and trips to their cosmetic surgeon into their flagship reality series, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Ten years on television is impressive for any show, let alone a reality series, which more often than not creates just fleeting moments of fame for its stars. But the Kardashians aren’t just reality stars, they’re the first family of reality TV.
When E!’s “KUWTK” premiered on Oct. 14, 2007, George W. Bush was president, American troops had been fighting in Iraq for four years, the financial crisis was just beginning to devastate the economy and Trump was hosting a reality show on NBC. A modern-day “Brady Bunch” reality program about a wealthy, obnoxious, blended Hollywood family was a welcome distraction for viewers dealing with difficult times.
The show was such a hit that the network renewed it for a second season after only weeks on the air. The Kardashians’ success only grew over time and the family left competitors in the genre, like “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels” and “Hogan Knows Best” in its dust. But America has changed a lot in a decade, and the Kardashian’s brand of frivolous escapism might not suit these times quite as well. Some, in fact, even blame the Kardashian Klan for the subsequent elevation of reality TV stars into prominent public figures.
In January, longtime Kardashian critic Chelsea Handler told Variety that she “blamed” the famous family for the way the media covered Trump during the election, which she believed subsequently aided his victory.
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“They were treating him as an entertainer first. It was a reality show. We’ve turned into a reality show. I blame the Kardashians, personally; the beginning of the end was the Kardashians,” Handler said. “The way these people have blown up and don’t go away — it’s surreal. Everyone is for sale.”
Handler’s blame feels slightly misplaced, but she’s not wrong about the comparison. We rely on the Kardashians to flaunt their wealth, feud with fellow celebrities, and entertain us with their personal drama and over-the-top antics. (Surprise engagements! Attempts to contact the dead a with creepy medium! Ugly crying!) But the Kardashians begin to feel redundant when the president of the United States is a ratings-obsessed self-proclaimed billionaire who picks fights with Meryl Streep, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Snoop Dogg, and talks about his cabinet choices as though he were handing out roses on “The Bachelor.”
It might seem cruel to compare the Kardashians to Trump, as they actually promote a lot of progressive values, including championing the transgender community. Plus Kim has openly supported Hillary Clinton, frequently promotes gun control and, after Trump instituted his travel ban, she even tweeted out a statistical graphic showing that Americans are more likely to die by being shot by another American than by an Islamic jihadist. And while Trump is rumored to be a “never-nude,” the Kardashians wouldn’t fall into that category. But make no mistake: Both the Kardashians and Trump are operating out of the same reality TV playbook that calls for conflict, misdirection, manipulation and scandals allegedly featuring golden showers.
Trump has been president for nearly 60 days, yet he’s still acting as though he’s starring on “The Apprentice” ― and it seems intentional. Between the endless leaks and reported infighting among Trump’s top aides, there is no shortage of drama coming from the White House.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that conflict is being stoked, created, and encouraged [within Trump’s staff],” Jeff Jenkins, a co-president at the production company behind “KUWTK,” told Vanity Fair in December. “I think the sad and horrifying reality from my perspective is that all of that conflict and all of those small skirmishes ... that’s just a smoke screen. We, as citizens, are getting distracted. It’s an unfortunate technique, but it’s effective.”
Given that the news is already saturated with reports that Trump hates the way press secretary Sean Spicer dresses, will anyone care the next time Kanye West overhauls Kim’s closet? Or with rumblings that White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are at war with one another for control, is there any room to mull over whether or not Kim invited Blac Chyna to a baby shower? When Trump uses both his personal and official presidential Twitter accounts to attack Nordstrom for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, does that leave room for us to care if Khloe comes to Kim’s defense when Amber Rose calls her a “whore”? And with Trump’s completely unsubstantiated claims that Obama wiretapped his phones during the campaign, it’s unlikely anyone will raise their eyebrows the next time Kim gets paranoid and accuses her BFF Jonathan Cheban of leaking stories to the press.
The Kardashians thrived in the Obama era, but Trump’s win has prompted somewhat of a shift in celebrity coverage. Although sex will always sell, these days, a female celebrity can get just as much, if not more, attention for voicing her political views as she can for posting a bikini photo on Instagram.
This poses a problem for the Kardashians, who rely on beachside bikini photos, nude selfies and the public tittering over their cleavage to generate headlines. Now, that’s not to say the Kardashians aren’t political at times, nor that they’re entirely flippant. But there are already signs the Kardashians’ spotlight is dimming.
Part of their current strategy has been to use their “KUWTK” show as a commercial platform for their larger empire. Even though they split a six-figure salary per episode, the real money is in the endorsement deals, clothing lines, video games and lip kits. But staying on TV is paramount to their continued exposure, marketing and success. Which is why declining viewership is such a concern. Season 12, which aired from May to November 2016, resulted in the show’s lowest ratings ever. The premiere of Season 13, which aired on Sunday night, was watched by 1.48 million viewers ― making it the series’ least-watched season premiere since 2008.
One theory for the drop in viewership is that the Kardashians have actually been undermining audience interest in “KUWTK” with their amped-up social media presence. The show has historically been used as a platform for major announcements to mine for ratings, but by the time the episode rolls around these days, the pregnancy reveals, engagements and cover shoots are old news. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the Kardashians have been sharing much more about their personal lives with their increased focus on Snapchat, their personal apps and live-stream chats.
“When people looked at me in a way like, ‘Why is she stepping into the tech world? That’s not her territory! Stick to reality TV!’ I was like, ‘No,’” Kim told Forbes in July. “This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas. I don’t see myself stopping.”
And considering Kim told “60 Minutes” she owes her career to social media, it seems the Kardashians are willing to keep embracing more social platforms at the risk of losing TV viewers. Bypassing the networks, cultivating their own audiences on social media so they can speak directly to the public. Hmm. Where have we heard of that before?
Ironically, Kim’s three-month hiatus could actually be a boon to the show if viewers tune in to see what she was up to during her social media blackout. It seems that’s what “KUWTK,” which bills itself as a way for fans to go behind the headlines and separate fact from fiction, is banking on.
Fans who tuned in on Sunday night were no doubt expecting the season to start with Kim opening up about her October Paris robbery, which is what the trailer for the show certainly implied. Instead, viewers were treated to one of the most boring hours of television, consisting of the eldest three Kardashian sisters arguing about whether or not they should close their line of clothing stores and Khloe revealing her relationship with NBA player Tristan Thompson (which she already confirmed via Snapchat in September). Viewers will have to watch next week’s episode if they want to learn what really went down in Paris ― a clever and somewhat deceptive ratings tactic.
Beyond the drop in ratings, there are other signs the Kardashian era is ending. The family is actually losing ground on social media. In fact, Kim hasn’t been the most-followed person on Instagram since August 2015 and was quickly usurped by Taylor Swift. Today, she’s been bumped down to the fifth most-followed person, while Selena Gomez holds the top honor. On Twitter, Katy Perry, who is trying her hand at politically tinged music for the first time, is the most-followed, while Kim sits at No. 13 and Khloe ranks all the way at No. 56. It’s only on Snapchat where Kylie Jenner continues to reign supreme. The 19-year-old is still the most-followed person on the app “by a long-shot.”
But a more general indicator that the Kardashians should be worried is a decline in overall search. A chart in Google Trends for the term “Kim Kardashian” shows a clear dip in the months after Kardashian’s robbery.
Though it remains to be seen if Kim’s post-robbery break will actually increase interest in the show, the three months in which she retreated from the public eye coincided with Trump’s win. In that time, most of Hollywood responded with loud cries of resistance. Patton Oswalt has generated seemingly endless headlines with his tweets about Trump and managed to raise his overall public profile in the process. Likewise, celebrities including Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer and Meryl Streep garnered more attention for their clear anti-Trump sentiments than for their professional projects in recent months.
No one can blame Kim for taking time to recover from her traumatic experience. But with the exception of the aforementioned tweet that appeared to criticize Trump’s travel ban, neither Kim nor her sisters have made any statements concerning Trump or his policies. That’s not to say they owe anyone their political opinions. Still, if we’re looking at strategies to help keep them relevant, it’s certainly an idea.
Consider that while E! saw a 3 percent decline in viewership in 2016, cable news networks enjoyed massive ratings increases ahead of the election. CNN saw a 77 percent jump in overall viewers, while MSNBC increased its viewership by 87 percent. Ratings have dipped in 2017, but cable news networks are still seeing impressive numbers compared to this time last year. Meanwhile, TV comedians are mercilessly skewering the president and reaping the rewards of what’s been dubbed the “Trump bump.” “Saturday Night Live” is having its highest-rated season in 24 years, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” has seen a huge surge in overall viewership, and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has been dominating late-night for six consecutive weeks amid rumors NBC is pressuring “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon to “get more political” in light of his own declining viewership.
So while a change in strategy might seem like the obvious answer for the Kardashians, that could backfire, too. If audiences were looking for a way to escape when “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” premiered in 2007, that doesn’t seem to be the case now. Even if the Kardashians were to suddenly begin featuring episodes with intense political discourse instead of bikini-baring family vacations, it’s doubtful it would affect their ratings issue. Just look at what happened when Caitlyn Jenner tried to showcase actual issues faced by the transgender community on “I Am Cait.” The show was heralded by critics as groundbreaking and lauded for sparking important conversations, but it was canceled after two seasons due to low ratings.
No, it doesn’t seem productive to ask the Kardashians to change, but they don’t seem too worried yet. Of course, they’d never talk about something as uncouth as ratings. To be fair, despite the decline in viewership, the show isn’t in any immediate danger of being canceled, since E! still considers it “one of the most-watched series in cable.”
Ten years is a long time to dominate the world of reality TV. While the stars of once-successful shows like “The Simple Life,” The Hills” and “The Jersey Shore” have more or less faded into obscurity, the Kardashians understood how to perpetually keep themselves in the spotlight. Now that the country has its hands full keeping up with Trump, perhaps the Kardashians can take some time off and ready themselves for when Kanye runs for president in 2020 ... or 2024.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Kim Kardashian as the oldest of the siblings.