Caitlyn Jenner’s Too Good For Reality TV
As far as media stories go—let alone human ones—Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has been explosive. The conversation surrounding the star, now the most famous transgender person ever, and her first few public appearances and statements have gotten blockbuster levels of attention.
When Vanity Fair debuted its “Call Me Caitlyn” cover, Jenner joined Twitter the same day and promptly beat President Obama’s record as the fastest user to reach 1 million followers. Her “coming out” interview with Diane Sawyer drew a monumental 17 million viewers—and on a Friday night, to boot.
A two-part “About Bruce” special episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians scored 2.92 million viewers, a 50 percent increase from the show’s previous three episodes. And when Jenner made her first public speech as Caitlyn at the ESPY Awards, where she was the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, 8 million viewers tuned in.
It all has served as a lead-up to her passion project, the E! reality series I Am Cait, which premiered three weeks ago. I Am Cait is wonderful. It’s the kind of reality TV show we all claim to want: one that substitutes drunken catfights for cultural insights and tempers the usual amount of reality TV famewhoring with an insistence on education and even inspiration.
And yet no one is watching.
Well, a lot fewer people are watching than expected.
I Am Cait debuted July 26 to a respectable audience—one that the kinder media reporters called “strong,” but one that was slightly smaller than even the “About Bruce” episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The premiere drew 2.73 million viewers, which is just over a third of those that tuned in to her ESPY speech.
That drop is to be expected with “event” television like the ESPYs, especially when there’s the added interest of the most talked-about celebrity of the year giving her first on-camera speech—and the promise of said speech reducing us all to tears. (Mission accomplished.) And there was still plenty of good news in those Cait ratings: It was four times the viewers E! has received on average this year, and it was the third-largest E! audience of 2015, after the Oscars red carpet coverage and the “About Bruce” special.
Yet as ratings-strong as the premiere for I Am Cait was, many expected bigger numbers, especially as stellar reviews started to pour in for the show. In an ideal world, viewers would’ve sampled the series, seen how good it is, and then spread the word so that ratings would increase for the show’s second outing. In reality, the ratings fell by half for Episode Two.
Episode Three aired Sunday night and was as authentic and honest and informative and emotional as the two that aired before it. It was so good—and Jenner’s story has been the subject of so much intrigue—that we have to wonder what’s going wrong. Why is no one watching I Am Cait?
Some might argue that there was Jenner fatigue by the time I Am Cait premiered. But the show should’ve actually benefitted from the star’s exposure. Each big event doubled as an organic marketing campaign for I Am Cait.
As Jenner’s transition was discussed in broad, inspirational terms, curiosity was piqued for a more specific exploration of what her life living as a trans woman would be like, which I Am Cait promised to deliver.
But for all the ways that Jenner’s increasingly public existence drummed up interest in her reality show, the traditional means of promoting a new TV show were absent. Think back to any TV series launch, and then how many times you’d see that show’s stars on talk shows, magazine covers, and featured in entertainment website Q&As in the months leading up to its release.
With I Am Cait, and Jenner, that hasn’t been the case, which is another argument against Jenner fatigue. While so many new TV stars risk overexposure, Jenner’s chosen to stay out of the press—at least mostly. She wants the show, which has a message that has been carefully orchestrated to be the most responsible and have the most impact for the trans community, to speak for itself.
It’s a noble decision. And a risky one.
Even The New York Times has called I Am Cait a “gamble” for the network, saying that E! hoped “to benefit from the attention surrounding Ms. Jenner while also delivering a series that doesn’t feel exploitative.” That’s a telling assessment because it acknowledges the fear that people wouldn’t want to tune in to a nobler reality show than they’re used to, and also because it admits that nobility isn’t the only goal: The network was still banking on the show being a big ratings draw.
Sometimes a network will float a show with bad ratings for years because of the critical attention it gets, awards it might receive, or because it’s good for the brand to have a respectable show on its docket, even if no one’s watching it. (Think: 30 Rock, or Community.) But I Am Cait was supposed to be the best of both worlds: a ratings success and a rare opportunity to class up E!’s brand. So far, it’s only meeting the latter goal.
When we reviewed I Am Cait, we marveled over its status as a reality TV breath of fresh air. So many entries in the genre have been plagued by scandal of late—the Duggar family is just the tip of the iceberg—and the reputation of reality TV has likely been forever marred by one too many trips to the circus of drunken debauchery, deranged pleas for attention, and orgies of despicable human behavior.
I Am Cait, by contrast, rebels against all of those tendencies. Sure, one of its end goals is exposure for its star—it comes with the territory. But it’s one of the rare instances in which that exposure is being taken as a responsibility, not a vapid reward, and the star’s platform is actually a benefit to society at large, rather than a burden.
The premiere episode, for example, nimbly balanced the tightrope between responsibility and publicity, education and entertainment. Jenner met her mother and sisters for the first time as Caitlyn, and the anxiety and then, ultimately, acceptance of the moment was brutal, exhilarating, and emotional.
Jenner then visited the mother of a transgender teen who committed suicide in order to spotlight the reality that most members of the transgender community do not have the wealth, support, or privilege that Jenner has received, and that the rate of suicide, depression, and violence is staggering in the trans community.
Episodes Two and Three had Jenner meeting with other trans women, where they not only talked about the differences in their own transitions and relationships with gender identity—Jenner’s own insecurity about her voice takes center stage—but also things like discrimination, bias, and real stories of being attacked or forced into sex work for survival.
It’s all fascinating stuff. More, it’s necessary stuff for a society that is woefully unfamiliar with the reality of trans life; the public needs a mainstream outlet in order to get educated and empathize, accept, and change the status quo.
But the fact that it’s not the exploitative stuff that reality TV is built on is not only its greatest strength critically, but its biggest weakness commercially.
As Mic’s Kevin O’Keefe points out, a scan of Twitter (albeit a scan of Twitter with an agenda of finding negative reactions) reveals that some are finding the show boring. That’s perhaps an understandable assessment of the show if you view it purely for its entertainment value.
“Responsible” and “powerful” might make great headlines for a TV review, but it apparently doesn’t translate to a viewership that is conditioned to expect tearful screaming matches to accompany tearful emotional awakenings. As explosive as Jenner’s story has been, her TV show lacks the traditional fireworks typically ignited by reality TV stars with shallower ambitions.
We’re grateful the show has resisted any temptation to manufacture drama to make it more interesting. But this may be the case where our delusion of being the Pop Culture Lorax—we speak for the people—doesn’t apply. The “people” are missing the drama.
Maybe the show is too good, well, for its own good.