End of 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' says a lot about TV industry
Since "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" premiered in 2007, the reality show has been a ratings-generating, attention-grabbing stalwart for NBCUniversal's E! network. That all ends next year when the show concludes its run on the channel after what will be its 20th season.
Neither the Kardashian-Jenner clan nor the Comcast-owned network said why they were parting ways. The Tuesday statement Kim Kardashian West posted on Instagram merely thanked E! "for being our partner."
"We'll forever cherish the wonderful memories and countless people we've met along the way," said the statement, which also appeared on other family members' accounts.
Said NBCUniversal: "We thank the entire extended family and our production partners, Bunim/Murray and Ryan Seacrest Productions, for embarking on this global phenomenon together."
The Kardashian-Jenner empire provided fodder for what will ultimately be 14 years of family drama, not to mention multiple spinoffs from the flagship show. (To be sure, E! will air two more seasons of the program before it ends in 2021.)
"Certainly they were a real anchor to the network," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It brought a lot of people to E! that would not have otherwise been there."
But NBCUniversal may not have wanted to continue paying top dollar for a show that was declining in the ratings, analysts said. The Kardashians in 2017 renewed their deal with E! through 2020. The deal was valued at less than $100 million, according to Variety.
The media company just axed its long-running "E! News" program last month after 29 years.
Besides, anyone wanting the latest developments on Kim and Kanye could follow it virtually in real-time through online news outlets, which probably hampered viewership.
On a macro level, though, the exit is not merely interesting because of what it means for E!, but rather what it says about the changing businesses of TV and celebrity that the show embodies. Audiences, especially younger viewers, are bailing on linear cable TV for streaming services, as well as other entertainment options, including Fortnite and TikTok.
And the Kardashians and Jenners are going where their audience already spends most of its time — to social media. With the rapid adoption of rapidly proliferating social apps, they don't need a legacy TV network to reach fans (and haters).
"Obviously they bring their own audience like nobody else, and they have an ability to monetize like nobody else in all sorts of different ways," said analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed Partners. "If you're the Kardashians, you realize your audience is watching less and less TV every day."
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has kept Americans confined to their living rooms like never before, 2020 is expected to be a record year for the number people who ditch pay-TV, said Ross Benes, an EMarketer analyst. The economic downturn caused by coronavirus closures has put more pressure on households to abandon traditional cable bundles, the thing tethering audiences to linear TV.
"There's been an increase in the number of cheaper streaming options, then you have the pandemic to add onto it, so people have more financial uncertainty than they used to have," Benes said. "There's just not a whole lot of incentive to pay $80 to $100 for satellite or cable television right now."
The decline in live TV ratings played out during the run of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." Its 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.
Traditional media companies have tried to adapt to the flight from linear TV by launching their own streaming services. Additional Kardashian content surely could have been a benefit to NBCUniversal's nascent service, Peacock, which is facing stiff competition in the growing streaming market. New episodes of the show already appear on the service.
But the Kardashians have their own ways of taking advantage of their massive online followings and staying fresh with the Gen Z crowd flooding new apps. The pandemic has increased the popularity of free video streaming apps such as TikTok as people look for new ways to entertain themselves at home. Unlike traditional paid TV, platforms such as YouTube and TikTok track the videos its users watch and make recommendations, which could help the Kardashians get in front of younger eyeballs.
"They're driven by algorithms, and they cater to everyone's tastes in a different way," Michael Wayne, CEO of Kin, a lifestyle entertainment company, said of the new apps. "Those platforms are super serving underserved audiences and have been doing so for many, many years."
Well before the rise of TikTok, the Kardashians demonstrated an ability to stay ahead of their celebrity rivals when it came to courting followers digitally with their own apps, social accounts and even a mobile video game ("Kim Kardashian: Hollywood"). Kourtney Kardashian could be seen this summer posting with TikTok influencer Addison Rae. Brand influencer work on social media is an obvious way for them to continue to flex their power.
"Their relevance is not on TV, their relevance is on Snapchat and social media," said Eunice Shin, a partner at brand and business consultancy Prophet. "They are absolute brand marketers, and that's what they exist for. They don't necessarily need television to do that."
No one will be surprised if the Kardashians end up with a blockbuster producing deal with Netflix or one of the many companies chasing its subscriber counts and stock market valuation. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last week announced a lucrative production pact with the Los Gatos, California, streaming giant, though it's not clear what type of programming they will usher to the service.
Whatever the Kardashians do next, there's no doubt they will remain "a headline-grabbing, attention-grabbing, ratings-grabbing machine," said Kyle Hjelmeseth, president of G&B Digital Management, a company that works with digital content creators. "Whatever happens next is going to be surprising only to those who haven't been watching what influencers have been doing."