By Constance Grady
After 13 years, Keeping Up With the Kardashians is coming to an end. The show that made household names out of Kim Kardashian West and her extended family will air its 20th and final season in 2021, the Kardashian-Jenner clan announced last month. “Without Keeping Up With the Kardashians, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Kardashian West wrote on social media. “I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who has watched and supported me and my family these past 14 incredible years. This show made us who we are and I will be forever in debt to everyone who played a role in shaping our careers and changing our lives forever.”
Kardashian West isn’t wrong: Keeping Up With the Kardashians did launch her career when it premiered on E! in 2007. It’s what helped her pivot away from her early semi-fame as Paris Hilton’s closet organizer and the girl whose sex tape leaked and toward the kind of celebrity who shows up on the cover of Vogue. It also made her sisters magazine-cover stars and helped launch the larger Kardashian-Jenner media empire.
But at this point, it’s also clear that the Kardashians have outgrown their reality show platform. For 13 years, Keeping up With the Kardashians has operated less as the center of the family business and more as an advertisement for the family’s many operations. And now, the Kardashian-Jenners have hit a point where they no longer need that ad.
Earlier this year, Kardashian West sold a stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to Coty for $200 million. Forbes estimated the deal put her net worth at $900 million. In addition to KKW Beauty, Kardashian West also has her own fragrance line, shapewear line, and a mobile game called Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, with accompanying Kimoji. Her sisters all have similar product lines: Kylie’s lip kits, Khloe’s Good American jeans, and Kourtney’s Poosh, for starters. (Poosh is a lifestyle brand.)
Then there are the one-off deals, the sponsored posts for laxatives and tooth whiteners the Kardashian kids release on their various social media platforms for what family matriarch Kris Jenner says are six-figure fees. (Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 to promote the infamous Fyre Fest.)
The Kardashian business strategy is to leverage the family celebrity and all the attention that comes with it to sell to brands. And when Keeping up With the Kardashians launched in 2007, it was the architect of the family’s fame. It was how they sold stuff. As Amy Chozick wrote in the New York Times in 2019, “Family turmoil feeds the celebrity news cycle, which drives interest in the TV show, which then helps to publicize an ever-increasing number of sponsorships and branded products.”
But in 2020, Keeping Up With the Kardashians isn’t where the serious numbers are anymore. When the most recent season aired in April, it captured fewer than a million viewers an episode. And this was despite premiering during quarantine, when Americans were desperate for distractions.
Instead, the attention the Kardashians capture and sell comes to them on social media. Kim has 188 million followers on Instagram. Kendall has 139 million. Kylie has 195 million.
With those kind of numbers, who needs television?