When Kris Jenner marched into Ryan Seacrest’s office back in 2007 and pitched an idea for a reality TV show about her large and chaotic family, no one could have predicted the global impact they would come to have.
However, it wasn't always this way. In 2009 after three seasons of the show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, it was languishing. Ratings were down. Viewers were tired of storylines revolving around inconsequential first-world problems. And Kris Jenner – executive producer and self-professed “momager” – was concerned that the show had become “stale”.
“Every time we renewed for another season,” she wrote in her 2011 autobiography, “I would think to myself, ‘How can I take these fifteen minutes of fame and turn them into thirty?”
Then something happened. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2012, Jenner admitted that her faith in the show had been restored when “my children started having children".
It was Kourtney Kardashian’s first pregnancy that propelled the family to a new league of stardom.
Gone were the days of petty arguments about clothes and cars. Suddenly, the drama – the marriages, divorces, fertility struggles – was slickly produced, tangible and relatable for viewers.
And, for the first time, the drama began transcending TV screens and infiltrating the wider media, for whom the family were now a financially appealing option. The public appetite for their dramas boosted online page views and sold magazines.
The family saw their opportunity to capitalise on this change. What we’ve seen since is a masterclass in controlling the media for one very specific gain: to keep viewers watching. “I started to look at our careers like pieces on a chessboard," Jenner wrote in her memoir. "Every day, I woke up and walked into my office and asked myself, 'What move do you need to make today?' It was very calculated. My business decisions and strategies were very intentional, definite and planned to the nth degree.”
The family tease the media with snippets of information, confirming as much or as little about those rumours as they choose, but ultimately save the actual drama for the show, which creates interest around each season and maintains viewing figures.
KUWTK and its multiple spin-offs have become vehicles by which the family can fuel the media and keep themselves in the public eye, achieving Kris’s goal of turning “fifteen minutes of fame into thirty”.
The result? KUWTK has reached greater success than any other reality TV show, spawning multiple spin-offs, remaining on the air for almost a decade, and turning its stars into a globally recognised brand.
This is how they’ve done it.
Kourtney's first pregnancy
Kourtney’s first pregnancy marked a shift in the way the family dealt with the tabloids, because for the first time, the family dramas weren’t just contained within the show – they were making headlines outside of it too.
Kourtney fell pregnant during the filming of the family’s first spin-off show, Kourtney and Khloe Take New Miami, which began shooting in the weeks after she briefly split from boyfriend of two years, Scott Disick.
She released a statement confirming the pregnancy in August 2009. However, she also said the public would “have to wait to watch the show” in order to find out who the baby’s father was.
The pregnancy announcement came just four days before the season premiere, which opened to an audience of 2.8 million. The final episode of the season, in which Kourtney discovered she was indeed pregnant with Scott's baby, saw 2.6 million viewers tuning in. It became clear that teasing people with a compelling real-life storyline equated to mass audiences.
Kim's engagement and wedding to Kris Humphries
The announcement of Kim Kardashian’s engagement to Kris Humphries in 2011 was equally as carefully executed. The first move was securing an exclusive magazine deal confirming the engagement with People in May.
Exactly one month after this announcement, Season 6 of KUWTK arrived. This charted Humphries’ proposal, the planning of and build-up to the wedding, and the nuptials themselves. Confirming the engagement of the family’s biggest star so close to the new season’s debut created unprecedented interest in the show.
The wedding was exclusively covered by People magazine in an issue published on 24 August. The episodes of KUWTK showing Kim’s wedding arrived on 9 and 10 October. The viewing figures spoke for themselves. The two wedding specials attracted a combined audience of 10.5 million viewers. The first marked the most watched day in E!’s programming history. The second drew in six times the primetime average on the network.
It was unsurprising, then, that when the marriage broke down 72 days later, Kim was met with fierce accusations that the whole event was a ratings stunt – something she has been forced to deny countless times since.
Kim’s divorce from Kris Humphries
Kim’s decision to end her marriage came during filming for the second season of KUWTK spin-off show Kourtney and Kim Take New York, and a statement confirming the divorce was unsurprisingly delivered exclusively to E!, in October 2011.
There was just one month between the divorce announcement and the new season debuting. During this time the sisters embarked on a promotional trail for the show and Kim told reporters she was “not ready” to discuss the details of the break-up, but the family confirmed that it would feature prominently in the series.
It became clear that the only way to discover just what had happened in the marriage was to watch the show. The first episode attracted 3.19 million viewers, up from the 1.93 million who watched the finale of the previous season of KUWTK.
The series charted the demise of the relationship in intense detail. It was only during the season finale, however, that Kim decided to end the marriage – something that had been trailed at the end of the penultimate episode. Sure enough, 4.47 million viewers tuned in to the finale, making it the third-highest-rated episode in the history of KUWTK and its three spin-offs.
Kim’s first pregnancy
On New Year’s Eve 2012, just three weeks before the third season of Kourtney and Kim Take Miami aired, Kim and Kanye West confirmed that they were expecting a baby together.
The promotional trailer for the season featured a scene in which Kim told Kourtney she was pregnant. The season opened to 2.16 million viewers, and the final episode, which showed Kim’s announcement, attracted 2.56 million.
Season 8 of KUWTK aired just three months later, with a first episode that revealed the sex of Kim’s baby. Unsurprisingly, the premiere opened to 3 million viewers.
Kanye West’s proposal to Kim
When Kim announced her engagement to Kanye West, it was assumed that the proposal wouldn't feature on the show, as Kanye has kept his appearances on KUWTK to a minimum. However, it was later revealed that E! cameras were at the scene, and eventually a two-part special featuring the whole event was aired during Season 9.
So desperate were the family to keep virtually all of the details about the lavish moment secret until it was broadcast that everyone present, including the E! production crew, was required to sign confidentiality agreements. When former YouTube founder Chad Hurley filmed the event and shared it online prior to it airing on KUWTK, he was sued by Kim and Kanye.
When the proposal did air, it was the second-highest-rated episode of Season 9, narrowly beaten by Kourtney revealing her third pregnancy.
Kourtney’s third pregnancy
The timing of Kourtney's third pregnancy could not have been more perfect. She fell pregnant in March 2014, with Season 9 of KUWTK set to air in June – by which point she would be past the first trimester and able to make an announcement.
Pregnancy rumours began to circulate in May. One week before the new season of KUWTK began, Kris Jenner gave an interview in which she refused to confirm or deny the rumours, saying: “The only way I can answer that question is you’ll just have to tune in on Sunday night and get the answer. By the end of Sunday night’s episode, you’ll have your answer.”
The season opened to 2.56 million viewers, and was trailed by a teaser in which the pregnancy was of course confirmed. The episode in which Kourtney announced her pregnancy received the highest ratings of the entire season, with 2.84 million viewers tuning in.
Kylie Jenner's lips
Kylie’s Jenner’s lips have been the subject of intense media scrutinisation since March 2014, when she shared Instagram selfies in which her lips appeared noticeably bigger. Despite Kylie taking to Twitter to deny rumours of surgery, by the end of the year it was widely assumed she’d had lip fillers.
On two separate occasions in October, both Kim and Kylie herself publicly denied the rumours. One month later, during a red carpet appearance, Kylie again brushed off questions about her lips. In January 2015 she gave an interview to Cosmopolitan in which she said her changing appearance was down to "contouring" and "getting older". She reiterated the statement in an interview with Grazia in April 2015.
But when the teaser trailer for Season 10 of KUWTK arrived, showing a scene where Kylie appeared anxious after being asked about her lips by a reporter, it became clear that the speculation would be dealt with on the show.
In fact, an entire episode, "Lip Service", was devoted to the issue, during which Kylie finally admitted she'd had temporary surgical fillers and Kim revealed she'd felt uncomfortable lying to the press about the subject.
The previous week's episode, which trailed the following week's admission from Kylie, saw 1.93 million viewers tuning in. "Lip Service" itself attracted 2.09 million.
Kylie’s lip surgery was undoubtedly the longest-running rumour in the history of KUWTK. During the year of speculation Kylie attracted more press attention than virtually any other storyline. The strategy was clear: Rather than give the exclusive to a magazine or red carpet reporter – and there were countless opportunities to do so – they chose to reserve the issue solely for the show.
Kourtney and Scott Disick’s split
Just when we thought that Kim’s pregnancy, confirmed in a teaser trailer following the mid-season finale of season 10, would be the primary focus for the latter half of the series, something unexpected happened: Kourtney and Scott reportedly split, after nine years and three children together.
Despite the split reports breaking on 6 July, neither Kourtney nor Scott publicly confirmed them. However, the initial reports came from E! News, which quoted “sources” close to the couple confirming the split.
The fact that E! News reported the split ensured legitimacy around the rumours, and was the closest we came to a confirmation from Kourtney or Scott until Season 10 resumed on Sunday.
And after Sunday night's episode, a teaser trailer for the rest of the season aired, in which Kourtney could be seen discussing Scott's latest alcohol binge, and crying: "I've tried so hard to keep this family together." It seems clear, then, that the reason for the break-up and the resulting drama surrounding it, will be saved for the screen.
And so, the audience for the latter half of Season 10 is secured. The family's fame has not only proved to have unprecedented longevity, but it continues to grow, too. Last week saw the release of individual apps from Kim, Khloe, Kendall, and Kylie that were downloaded by 1 million people in the first 24 hours. The cycle of teasing just enough information to the media ahead of the show to attract viewers will continue for as long as there is drama. Whether they're regarded as a phenomenon or a fluke, the Kardashians show no sign of slowing down: At the end of last year, the family signed a deal worth $100 million for four more seasons of KUWTK.