Since 2007, the Kardashian family has been reeling in millions of viewers, eager and sometimes desperate, to get a closer look at the too-crazy-to-be-true lives of one Calabasas-based family. These women — along with their partners, children, and inner circle of friends— have arguably spawned more businesses, cultural moments, and franchises than any other group of people in the 21st century. As a unit, they’re an inescapable, flawlessly contoured juggernaut.
But being the most watched and talked-about family in America (that isn’t in the White House) comes with its own set of burdens. How do you stay relevant? How do you not only maintain a fully dramatic lifestyle, but also generate different drama each season, all with the same cast? (The core family has remained consistent — save for Caitlyn Jenner’s departure from the series in 2017.) In the first few months of 2019 alone, the family has faced more “scandals” and career-defining moments than most other celebrities do in a year: Travis Scott performed at the controversial Super Bowl and may have secretly proposed to Kylie Jenner while there. Kylie threw daughter Stormi Webster the most insane first birthday party. Kim Kardashian West announced that she and West are expecting a fourth child. Tristan Thompson cheated on Khloé Kardashian with Kylie’s now-excommunicated best friend (and former roommate) Jordyn Woods. Kourtney Kardashian might be dating Blink-182’s Travis Barker. Kylie is the youngest “self-made” billionaire to ever exist.
As an avid consumer of all things Kardashian, I’ve come to notice that these huge “scandals” tend to go down before the season premiere of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the family’s long-running E! reality show. (March 31 marks the series’ 16th season debut. Let that sink in.) The go-to joke is that the devil works hard, but Kris Jenner works harder — but is it true? Is there a pattern for a Kardashian scandal? And does it work? There’s only one way to find out.
Much like the roll out of a new album, it’s becoming clear that every recent Kardashian "drop" follows a distinct, but loose, timeline: The first inkling of a rumor is leaked on a tabloid site, where it then enters the public sphere. Other outlets begin to pick up on it, and mass speculation turns the tiny spark of rumor into a full-blown fire. The sisters then take to social media to weigh in on said scandal, confirming and denying aspects of it that build a narrative. (For instance, with the Tristan-Khloé scandal, Khloé pivoted the narrative from Jordyn being a “homewrecker” to the 21-year-old model being a victim of Tristan’s infidelity.) Building on the original chatter, supplementary stories about the family come out, keeping the fire ablaze. This only lasts a few weeks, until the fire is extinguished when Keeping Up With the Kardashians premieres and the family introduces new plot lines for fans to pick up. They’re spoon-feeding us our daily intake of mindless gossip, and like Pavlov’s dog, we are left salivating for more — even if we don't actually watch the show. Four weeks of non-stop Kardashian news, and we’re sucked back into their lives. It’s insidious as it is brilliant.
Ground zero of most Kardashian scandals is TMZ. This tabloid site is notoriously the first to “break” any Kardashian news, based on inside sources and direct contact with someone who knows a lot more about the family than you or I. “Trustworthy” and “TMZ” may not be two words commonly associated with one another, but regardless of their sleazy headlines, the site’s almost always right. When it comes to news about this family, Harvey Levin’s Hollywood gossip site is the spigot from which the tap flows. As the New Yorker wrote in a 2016 exposé on TMZ, many celebrities come directly to the site with tips and, more importantly, an angle.
In fall of 2017, TMZ broke the news that Kylie was pregnant with a short post, late on a Friday afternoon, only two weeks after rumors dropped that Kim and Kanye were expecting their third child. Neither Kylie nor her sisters commented on the legitimacy of the claim. Instead, the notoriously public 20-year-old hid out at her house to experience her pregnancy in private — and Khloé Kardashian stepped up by announcing that she, too, was pregnant with her first child with Thompson. Kylie would not confirm her own pregnancy until Super Bowl Sunday — February 4, 2018 — three days after giving birth. On February 6, she uploaded the first photo of Stormi, which would become the most liked Instagram post until the "Egg."
And what was happening during all this pregnancy news? The tenth anniversary of the series. On October 1, after Kylie’s pregnancy was “leaked” to TMZ and speculation on the matter ran wild, the series premiered to higher-than-normal viewership.
Here’s the actual timeline:
October 1, 2017: Season 14 of KUWTK premieres higher than average viewership, according to RatingGraph.com.
During this period of great speculation by the media (and fans at large), no one from the family confirmed or denied any of the rumors. According to a Forbes article from January 2018, season 14 ratings have been improving in tandem with the scandals. (The most watched KUWTK episode to date was Kim’s 2011 wedding to husband-of-72-days Kris Humphries, which brought in 10.5 million viewers.)
Let’s compare the timeline for Kylie’s pregnancy to the cheating scenario that just unfolded.
February 19, 2019: TMZ reports that Jordyn Woods made out with Tristan Thompson at a party. Khloé Kardashian immediately reacts on social media, cryptically commenting on a post about the rumor.
February 20, 2019: Kim Kardashian West is the first family member to officially react on social media.
February 26, 2019: Khloé Kardashian directly addresses the drama with a tweet.
March 1, 2019: Jordyn Woods goes on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk Facebook show.
March 3, 2019: Khloé Kardashian blames, then apologizes to, Jordyn Woods.
March 4, 2019: Travis Scott reportedly caught cheating on Kylie Jenner.
March 31, 2019: Season 16 of KUWTK premieres.
Sure, pregnancy and infidelity are different types of drama, but when comparing the 2017 and 2019 timelines, a clear strategy emerges: both situations unfold a month before the season premiere of the show. But, in 2019, instead of greeting the rumors with silence, the family enters the ring to directly confirm or deny rumors on social media. As we’ve seen the past month, Khloé and Kim are liking, tweeting, and answering fans’ questions about the Tristan-Jordyn brouhaha. If something is true, they’ll weigh in. If something’s not, they will let ? us? know. And the whole rigamarole is whetting fans’ appetites for the new season of KUWTK. Which seems to be the whole point.
Since three is a trend, let’s look at one more major Kardashian moment from 2018, right in between Kylie’s pregnancy and Khloé’s cheating heartbreak: the sister feud. Remember when Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé decided that they all hated each other? And Kourtney went to therapy, and Kim made fun of her for it? And Kourtney’s therapist convinced her that her mother Kris was the root of all her issues in her adult life? This feels like a Fake Feud. Unlike the 2017 and 2019 scandals, this one was teased purely in promo clips and trailers for season 15 of the series. It was August 2018 — the baby news was all out in the open, Kanye West wasn’t making regrettable comments about Donald Trump yet, and a simple sibling feud was an easy, attention-grabbing narrative to latch onto. It worked. Outlets noted that Kim and Kourtney hadn’t been in photos together recently, and speculated that the relationship was degrading before our eyes. Kim essentially called Kourtney basic (the ultimate insult), and even their momager chose sides (#TeamKim).
Here’s how it went down:
August 22, 2018: The feud continues both on the show, and IRL. Kourtney and Kim bicker on Twitter after each episode airs.
After a nine episode arc, where the fight lubricated an otherwise dry season (that is until episode 12, when the first Tristan Thompson story broke), the hyped-up conflict ended. Kim and Kourt went back to privately resenting one other’s narcissism instead of hamming it up for the camera.
These three different timelines all involved the Kardashians' inner-circle; they all broke a month before a new season of the show; and they each made the public pay closer attention to the family again.
What’s interesting, though, is that the stories breaking right before a season premiere won’t actually be discussed in the series because of the way filming works. For example, season 16 can’t address Thompson and Woods at all because it was already filmed earlier this year, prior to the news breaks. It will presumably only set the stage for the more drama by hinting that Khloé wants to end things with Thompson, or even (I’m really hoping for this) revealing that Khloé actually has her own secret man. But this is producer-talk (hello, Chris Harrison and Ryan Seacrest: I am very good at this) — all of these timely scandals are meant to build long lead plotlines for the show. We can bet that season 17 will take a closer look at Khloé’s reaction to Jordyn kissing her man, and if Kourtney is really dating the drummer of everyone’s favorite teen angst band.
In reality TV, it’s more difficult to create these season-spanning plotlines and keep them interesting — unless, like The Bachelor, you’re constantly changing out the cast to keep things fresh. So, the Kardashians have improvised.
The drama isn’t exactly fake — it’s just strategic, if you know what you're really looking at.