Last call for 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians'

The Kardashians at the Met Ball in May 2019
The Kardashians at the Met Ball in May 2019 ANGELA WEISS AFP/File
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New York (AFP)

It's a cultural abyss for some, an addictive melodrama for others, but no matter your view "Keeping Up With The Kardashians", which premieres its 20th and final season Thursday, succeeded in syncing reality television with social media -- and making the clan a fortune.

Savvy businesswoman that she is, Kim Kardashian, who is among the show's central figures, and her mother Kris last year decided to get on the streaming train.

Post-"KUWTK" the family has announced a partnership with Disney, for a new show on Hulu and the nascent platform Star.

But first they're wrapping the show that made their name, which remains on the cable channel E! -- though audiences have dropped off dramatically since peaking during season 4, in 2010.

Since it launched in 2007, sometimes airing more than one season per year, the wildly successful reality television followed the Kardashians in their daily life, always punctuated with family mini-dramas, and salacious tensions between couples.

And its final season promises emotions on high -- scripted or not -- what with the possible marriage of Kourtney and Scott, the second child of Khloe and Tristan, and allusions to the separation of Kim and Kanye West.

"Nobody is that dumb that they would think this isn't a well-rehearsed program," said Ellis Cashmore, a sociology scholar currently at Aston University.

"Part of the fun of it, that we are in on the joke," he said -- adding that "the butt of the joke is probably us, really."

But despite the scripting the formula lent the family credence: "Kim and her family created authentic personas on the show and their social media accounts. Consumers trust them and want to be like them," said Christine Kowalczyk, a marketing professor at the University of East Carolina.

Kim Kardashian drew much inspiration from Paris Hilton, who was famous for being famous in the early 2000s and succeeded in monetizing her celebrity.

Like Kim a few years later, "she knew she couldn't sing or dance or act or write," Cashmore said. "And her attitude was, I can still make money out of this."

- Moral decline? -

The daughter of the late Robert Kardashian -- the prominent lawyer who defended O.J. Simpson during his murder trial -- Kim's spotlight on the show lent her power on social media, which was taking off as the show launched.

The 40-year-old has 210 million Instagram followers, and per Kowalczyk "was very innovative and transformative" in her use of online networks.

"Her use of social media is not random," the marketing professor said. "She uses the different platforms to create and maintain her brand image."

The family lends another "unique" element that attracts viewers, she said, who are eager for the next set of endless twists and turns.

Kardashian has turned the brand she's cultivated into a vast fortune: according to Forbes, she's worth $780 million.

Along with the distribution contract with E!, which sits at $30 million per year, she launched a number of product lines, notably her cosmetics brand KKW Beauty. Last year she sold 20 percent of its capital to the makeup giant Coty for $200 million.

Add in the fortune of her half-sister Kylie Jenner -- estimated at $700 million -- and the clan's worth, which started from little, is approaching $2 billion.

There's still the controversial legacy of the show to consider.

"The Kardashians capture the unease of a society that is in many ways affluent... but might be decaying morally," Cashmore said. "And what I meant by that is that we have become fascinated with other people's private lives."

It also reflects a cynical moment in which authenticity is brandished as a cardinal value -- while being endlessly shaped and reshaped by reality television and social networks.

Some others point to the show, however, as a platform that helped normalize mixed-race couples, or to familiarize the public with transgender people. The transition of Kris' ex-husband Caitlyn Jenner was square in front of the cameras.

Other analysts have noted the way the show emphasized independent women who call the shots in both their private and professional lives.

Whatever Disney's next project is, the show's end doesn't spell the end of the Kardashians: They "are constantly evolving to maintain themselves and their brands in the marketplace," Kowalcyzk said.