Kardashian-world is a strange one, a perverse hall of mirrors.
The family’s Sunday night dramas on E!—in which they drive around Los Angeles, or stay in their mansions sucking on juices while stink-eyeing one another, slack-jawingly noting how “weird” things are while off camera, assistants flutter, presumably ensuring their pets are kept at the right temperature—are transfixing. In a numbing way, at least.
But E! must be convinced there is a demand that we continue “keeping up” with this family of shockingly mundane circus performers, and the tabloids cannot get enough: There are multiple stories a day about romances and feuds and breakups, all featuring quotes rarely from the participants but rather sources close to them.
If ever a day or two goes by without the spotlight on them, you can be sure that a Kardashian will appear not wearing very much, or modeling on a catwalk, or gracing the cover of a magazine, or kissing someone, or appearing on a magazine with a glass of wine perched on their backside to guarantee column-inches and clicks.
Yet there is a limit to Kardashian demand, it seems.
In a report for Women’s Wear Daily, the journalist Alexandra Steigrad, analyzing figures supplied by the Alliance for Audited Media, found that when the Kardashians appeared on a magazine’s cover, sales of that magazine were lower than normal.
For example, for the first half of 2015, Cosmopolitan’s single-copy sales were around 531,086. However, the Kylie Jenner issue sold fewer—495,423—while the November issue, proclaiming the Kardashians (pictured en masse on the cover) “America’s First Family,” sold even fewer at 436,500 copies.
Meanwhile, Glamour’s first half of 2015 average—193,108—was slightly torpedoed by its July cover of Kim Kardashian (164,918). When Kendall Jenner appeared on GQ’s cover in May, the sales of the magazine—83,202—were about 10,000 down on the usual.
The negative pattern wasn’t uniform: Rolling Stone and Women’s Health magazines both got lifts in audiences from covers featuring Kim and Khloé Kardashian respectively.
In a predictable irony, all the Kardashian magazine covers were surpassed by “momager” Kris Jenner’s ex, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover of last July, proclaiming “Call Me Caitlyn.”
The magazine typically sells 164,000 copies on newsstands; the “Caitlyn” cover sold over 400,000 copies, according to Adweek, which placed the cover at the top of their most successful magazine covers of 2015 list.
Languishing at the bottom was one of the year’s worst sellers: a Life & Style cover from Oct. 12 proclaiming Kim Kardashian “dumped” by Kanye West, and promising the facts behind the split.
Tellingly, the Kardashians’ various apps sell well, and stories about them online continue to score hundreds of thousands of clicks.
What’s the Kardashian media disconnect at play? Perhaps, it is what is the point of buying the magazine with a Kardashian on the cover, when you have probably already seen that cover, and read the salient information about it, on a gossip site?
The Kardashians’ $100 million empire—overseen by the canny Kris Jenner—certainly now seems to be finding more life online than in print or on screen.
The E! show’s ratings are falling, presumably because, even though viewers probably assume scenes are staged, the show itself feels dull. The nature of filming and editing means the events on it are dated too, and already known about by those who care enough about the Kardashians if they’ve been imbibing their regular gossip fodder.
And the staginess of the show is becoming obvious: In early December, Radar Online exposed how Instagram pictures revealed some scenes had been fabricated. No surprise, but still…
In late December Radar reported ratings for the current season—following a long-term pattern—were drastically down; the third episode of the latest season garnered just 1.893 million viewers, compared to 2.053 million viewers of Episode 2.
Yet still, and perhaps not mysteriously given their talent for camera-friendly publicity, the family dramas keep generating.
The rush to Lamar Odom’s bedside was publicly criticized as self-publicity for the family, rather than them showing genuine concern for Odom.
In recent days, the health of Rob Kardashian has become the latest eruptive storyline to be played out in the tabloids.
His family, claims the Mirror, are not, as reported elsewhere, planning an “intervention” after he was rushed to hospital, reportedly suffering from type-2 diabetes.
Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian has been “spotted” (there were paparazzi there—how did this happen?) en route to a doctor’s appointment, sporting a killer black coat.
Her marriage to Kanye West, himself a reliable purveyor of eccentric and unpredictable public behavior, is a gold mine of gossip in and of itself.
The younger Jenners are becoming famous models, hang out with pop stars, and are beginning to accrue scandals—the Kardashian franchise never stands still.
The level of engagement and involvement of Kardashian-watchers, who also follow their favorite participants via social media, is the shifting sand: it appears momentary, fragmented, more splash than depth. Then the wait for the next splash.
So perhaps the Kardashian magazine and TV interest implosion is simply because the effort of buying a magazine, or watching a TV series, about the family seems like too much of a commitment, too much effort.
The Kardashians seem repetitive, their own trope that few quite want to own up to being that invested in. Their value is in shock and incident, and so the apps or social media vehicles they can use to convey their headline-grabbing peaks and troughs are the best communication platforms available to them.
Perhaps magazine readers and TV viewers sigh when they see them because they have seen too much of them already that day when they get to the newsstand, or reach for the zapper on a Sunday night. They may not be always on our mind, but they’re always on our newsfeed.
So, for shock value, while Bruce Jenner’s much-hyped and brilliant interview with Diane Sawyer, in which he revealed all about his transgender journey (and before his transition to Caitlyn), scored 16.9 million viewers and 20/20’s best ratings in 15 years, his follow-up E! series I Am Cait, played out over a series of episodes, began at 3.9 million viewers, dropping to just over 1 million viewers by season’s end.
However, a second season of I Am Cait has been commissioned, just as we haven’t seen the last magazine cover featuring the family, or TV series about them, or TV chat show analyzing whatever they’re chattering or scandalizing the Internet about that day.
There is still something about the Kardashians that viewers or readers want, editors and broadcasters have judged. The formula to crack now, for both for the family and those who make money out of them, is the changing nature of that public appetite.
Don’t underestimate them. The Kardashians have already proved brilliantly shameless at outstaying their welcome, and making shedloads of money from it. They won’t be embracing seclusion just yet—unless they can Instagram it.