Kim Kardashian West announced Tuesday that “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” will be ending after 14 years and 20 seasons — at least once its final episodes air in 2021. This news is sure to be polarizing, given the passion of both fans and critics. But while the series was not for everyone, it unmistakably changed the entire celebrity ecosystem. And its cancellation is likely not a retirement from the public eye for the Kardashians, but a statement that they no longer need TV.
Its cancellation is likely not a retirement from the public eye for the Kardashians, but a statement that they no longer need TV.
Kardashian West is enjoying a career renaissance of sorts as she pivots toward political activism. But for those might have made a point not to know, Kardashian first rose to fame as part of Hollywood’s secondary celebrity class. The daughter of an elite lawyer father, Robert Kardashian, and a mother, Kris Jenner, who remarried an Olympic has-been from the 1970s, Kim and her sisters, Kourtney and Khloe, grew up surrounded by the children of the impossibly wealthy and famous. Indeed, Kim got her first real taste of fame as an employee to one of them, the heiress Paris Hilton. Hilton’s reality series “The Simple Life” lasted a mere three years, but it introduced the world to Kim, her “stylist” hanger-on.
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As the Kardashians angled to land a series as a replacement for “The Simple Life” in 2006, Kardashian West suddenly starred in her own scandal. In any other instance, a sex tape would have derailed the project. But instead, the family engineered a $5 million deal that released the tape ahead of the show’s debut, giving new meaning to the phrase “backdoor pilot.” Having created sufficient interest and scandal, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (henceforth “KUWTK”) arrived on E! in October 2007 with significant buzz. And just like that, sex tapes were transformed from a career-ender to a star-making opportunity.
The show itself has never been all that interesting. Like the “unscripted family sitcoms” that came before it — think “The Osbournes” or “Newlyweds” — it mostly highlighted the mundane problems of the nouveau riche as they flashed their wealth, squabbled over things that didn’t really matter, and then ended the night (or episode) with a hug. “KUWTK” embraced its sex tape origins with extra spices of naughty, be it 9-year-old half-sister Kylie Jenner playing on the stripper pole in Kim’s bedroom or Khloe attempting to use a stick of butter to deal with waxing burns in sensitive areas. Like the tape itself, these incidents pushed the edges of “acceptable” further, but in truth, they were no more scandalous than anything Anna Nicole Smith had done on her eponymous show a few years prior.
At first, the gatekeepers of celebrity news, from magazines like “People” and “Us” to “Entertainment Tonight,” mostly ignored the Kardashians. Even E! TV roundup series like “The Soup” never mentioned “KUWTK” without first explaining it starred a woman famous for “a big ass and a sex tape.” The Kardashians were technically famous, but they remained cordoned off from the top tiers.
Rather than accept their place in the ecosystem, though, the Kardashians circumvented it. A brand-new social media platform, Twitter, had just launched in 2008, and the whole family joined en masse in March 2009. But the real sea change began when Instagram launched in 2010. Now, the Kardashians could push their celebrity with glossy photos and later, short video clips. Moreover, the social media explosion created nonstop content for burgeoning entertainment sites, desperate for access and content.
The family members provided the photos and clips, and the websites provided the coverage. Thus, the Kardashians made themselves constant internet cover girls. And of course, all this attention enabled the perfect PR feedback loop to promote the show. Watch the drama with Taylor Swift play out in real time as Kardashian West inserts herself into husband Kayne West’s long-running feud with the singer on social media, read about it on the internet, then tune into next season to see it replay from Kim’s point of view.
As fans flocked to the sisters, other celebrities began to follow suit. Today, most hardworking celebrities consider active social media accounts showing their “real” life a necessity. Even today, a decade later, both Kylie Jenner and Kardashian West have two of the highest followed accounts on Instagram. When the Kardashians moved to SnapChat, it turned the budding platform into the new place to be for celebrities. Their influence became such that even Anna Wintour put Kardashian West on the cover of Vogue, something that was once unthinkable. It’s telling that the announcement of “KUWTK’s” demise came not from any industry trade site, but Kardashian West’s Instagram account.
All of this has come with a price, of course, to our culture and the messages it sends to women. The casualness with which the Kardashian-Jenners reportedly have plastic surgery is alarming. Kylie Jenner was known for her lip injections before she was able to vote. Their photoshopped and touched-up selfies create an impossibly idealized look that had been burned into the minds of a generation of young men and women. And their endless hawking of diet products contributes to a massive and damaging industry. One cannot precisely blame the family for the growing craze of teenage plastic surgery, but the correlation is hard to miss.
But even with the show ending, no one believes the Kardashians are going away. With Kardashian West’s decision to go back to school to become a lawyer, and her husband Kanye’s current disaster of a presidential campaign, rumors will probably run rampant about what comes next. But the truth is, after 14 years, the Kardashians’ main audience has mostly stopped watching traditional broadcast cable channels like E! (Sorry, “E! News.”) “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” isn’t canceled. It’s just moving with the times.
It’s more likely the Kardashians are simply retooling for a move to a more online place, whether that be streaming on Netflix, TikTok or the next big internet craze no one has heard about yet. Once upon a time, the Kardashians needed a cable TV series. But not anymore. And in the process, these reality television stars created an ecosystem that no longer needs television.