When Kim Kardashian announced to the world via Instagram that her family would no longer be headlining the slate of E! Entertainment shows after their last season of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” draws to a close in 2021, the news reverberated about the industry and many began speculating how the cable network and its parent company, NBCUniversal, would recoup perceived losses.
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Having been a cornerstone of E!’s programming schedule since the series’ foray into reality television in 2007, “KUWTK” has enjoyed monumental success for nearly 20 seasons and hundreds of episodes, not including the multiple spinoff shows that have come and gone in years since.
According to experts, a large hurdle E! has to overcome is that for so many years, the cable channel has been a hub for round-the-clock entertainment news programming, which was anchored by its legacy news program, "E! News," in addition to the viewership “KUWTK” consistently brought in.
Eric Schiffer, an author and leading expert in media and branding, believes that in order to mitigate losses from the lack of viewership and advertising dollars “KUWTK” brought E!, the network has to come up with a hook to pull folks in, and their new strategy may have to expand beyond just celebrity content.
“I think the biggest challenge for E! is entertainment relevance,” said Schiffer. “When your brand centers around entertainment and celebrity and you've now just had one of the most popular and fan-supported family brand jilt you, it's a giant problem for them when they have very little, if any, additional programming.”
In Schiffer's opinion, "E! is dealing with an excruciating lack of content at a time where they have become ever-dwindling in their entertainment relevance" in addition to COVID-19, which "has been a body blow and a danger to their connection with entertainment consumers," he said.
It has been previously reported that the Kardashian exodus from E! allegedly came in part due to a dispute over money. In 2017, the Kardashian clan renewed its contract with E! through 2019 for a reported $150 million. In 2015, it was a reported $100 million. Meanwhile, NBCUniversal has been hit financially by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“They would be stone-cold crazy to completely walk away from the kind of big paycheck that could come from a Netflix and the platform to be able to drive incremental revenue to all of the different brand variants that they're selling,” said Schiffer.
Although episodes of “KUWTK” are currently available to stream on various platforms, viewers are required to have a subscription in order to watch the available seasons.
Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, believes the Kardashians exited at exactly the right time as cable just isn’t the medium it once was in the past.
“It's almost as though they've outgrown the quaint ye olden days notion of a cable network,” said Thompson. “When the Kardashians first came out, of course, cable was still one of the hip ways of distributing material. Cable was once the new medium and I think now the Kardashians – just because they're leaving 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians' doesn't mean that we won't be able to keep up with the Kardashians because we will, they're going to have presences all over the place.”
Back in 2010, "KUWTK" reportedly scored 5.8 million viewers for a season premiere, but it has since brought in only a fraction of that number for a recent episode at just over 1.5 million viewers – a stark comparison to its peak popularity.
Thompson, who is also the director for the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, suggested that E! likely “relies more on the Kardashians than the Kardashians rely on E!.”
“We've seen other places go into this issue – HBO every now and again loses at the same time a number of its big shows. Everybody was predicting what was going to happen to HBO when 'Game of Thrones' was over,” Thompson explained. “And these things do definitely have their biorhythms.”
In addition, Thompson said the Kardashians stepping away from E! is also simply a sign of the times that we’re in the middle of a rapid culture shift similar to what MTV experienced having transitioned from “being the things that the kids were watching to being the things their parents were watching.”
“And those are always signs of cultural shifts," he said. "Like so many of these superbrands, the Kardashians are evolving and they may not have as big a chunk of the cultural soul as they once did.”
Furthermore, Thompson doesn’t see a lucrative market for Kardashian re-airings given the fact that the Kardashians, like a lot of reality TV, don't have the same evergreen repeat value that, for example, a scripted sitcom does.
“The fun of those kinds of shows was that they were contemporary, they were new. Even the title, 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians' becomes kind of defeated in a rerun,” the lecturer explained.
And while the Kardashians’ departure from their lifelong network home could be deemed as a crushing blow, it may also be a silver lining in that it allows the broadcaster to reassess its position in the market and its overall programming, according to Thompson.
“If E! purchased or developed and aired a good sitcom, then yes, all the other problems go away,” suggested Thompson. “Think about when Court TV was going to be all court cases all the time. And it turned out that people weren't watching that. So then they changed their name to what -- Tru TV.
“But even before that, MTV was all videos and then they discovered 'Singled Out,' the game show, and 'The Real World' and all of that,” Thompson continued. “And as much as people complain, they did better with that.”
Schiffer echoed Thompson’s sentiment that a successful sitcom could help E! bounce back and pull in more advertising revenue while increasing the viewership of its preexisting shows.
“They've been rocked and they have to reengineer and reimagine what their entertainment slate is going to be like,” Schiffer advised. "There are plenty of options, but at this point, that brand is in a bit of a death spiral with relevance with modern-day consumers of entertainment.”
For any network to not only have to ax a legacy program like "E! News," which "is like setting yourself on fire at breakfast," he adds that the move from the Kardashians to end their popular reality show after decades on E! “means soul-crushing pain when the cornerstone of your brand relevance on the entertainment side has just left the building for good.”
Still, according to Thompson, the formula for E!’s path to profitability as it transitions into its post-Kardashian era and beyond appears attainable.
With an upgrade in successful original programming, the network will in turn get to sell those advertisements for more money because more viewers will be tuning in. Plus, they’ll get to throw in promotional advertising for other shows already on the channel.
“There will be some percentage of people who will actually be interested in that, even though they didn't know that it existed prior to that,” predicted Thompson. “So if you can bring them to E!, you might get all kinds of people that then start watching the 'Bradshaw Bunch' ... or 'Dr. 90210.'
“You can start building on that kind of stuff.”
A spokesperson for E! Entertainment did not respond to FOX Business' request for comment.