In the dark epoch between the writer’s strike of 2007–08 and the cultural explosion of Peak TV, there was no greater threat to writing, acting, documentaries, television itself, and, indeed, American society than reality programming. Reality shows “clog the neural pathways of pop culture with the contrived antics of glorified nobodies,” screamed Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott in 2009. Some British actor named Richard Briers, who probably struck out on Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Spooks, Sherlock, and Luther, said in 2010, “The age of the actor and quality drama just seems to be over and it’s a great shame because there is nowhere for new stars to hone their skills.” (Briers would later appear in 2012’s Cockneys vs Zombies, so it all worked out.)
Today all that seems comically alarmist, like the entertainment version of Y2K panic. The Kardashians may have devoured the souls of numerous minor celebs and fringe professional athletes, but television, in all its forms, is as vital as ever. In fact, as The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family, and Unreal (which is set in and around the production of a fictional Bachelor-like program) show, it’s scripted television that is now cannibalising reality.
Reality television has settled into a comfortable-but-necessary existence as the thing you watch when you don’t want to think too much or, even, at all. With a seemingly infinite number of scripted shows, movies, video games, mobile games, web series, and think pieces all competing for eyeballs, reality television offers a needed escape. It’s an aspirational medium, as the continued hegemony of the Kardashian-Jenner dynasty proves. But it’s also a place that lets us feel better about where we are in the social hierarchy by allowing us to be part of the ritual humiliation of people wealthier, more successful, and better-looking than we are. It’s educational. I’ve learned more about Los Angeles from four seasons of Vanderpump Rules than the four times I’ve visited in the last year.
Even if it’s passive entertainment, it’s still got top performers, stars, power players. And reality shows, even in their current contained state, still drive conversations. But who’s the top content generator in reality television?
After intensive research, we now have our answer, in the form of Content Units Per Episode (CUPE).
CUPE is a sister statistic of Content Units Per Scene (CUPS), the Ringer TV metric that looks at how much internet content a television character inspires relative to the amount of time they spend onscreen. CUPE is the reality television version of the stat, taking into account episodes, rather than scenes. The formula: (Google News hits) divided by (episodes) = CUPE.
Some notes and caveats:
As I mentioned in the article for CUPS, Google News hits aren’t perfect for these purposes, but they’re what we have. Currently, there’s no more accurate method of discovering what’s being blogged about.
This list focuses on the major reality shows and measures 130 cast members in total. I’ve ignored less established franchises (Naked and Afraid, Heroes of Cosplay, etc.) and web series because they just don’t move the needle enough.
This list represents the data taken from the most recent active casts of the Real Housewives franchise in Atlanta, Beverly Hills, New York City, Orange County, and New Jersey; Keeping Up With the Kardashians; Duck Dynasty; The Challenge; The Real World; Big Brother; and Survivor; and the last three winners of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
Without further ado, here’s your CUPE top 10, along with each character’s Posts Per Day (PPD), which tracks the number of posts written in a 24-hour period (Monday-Tuesday, this week) about said character:
1. Kim Kardashian West, ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’
Posts Per Day (PPD): 14,000
No surprise here. Nor is it a surprise to see four out of the CUPE top 10 belonging to Kim’s blood relations. She is the sun at the heart of the extended Kardashianverse. All celestial bodies in her orbit, no matter how minor (hello, Rob Kardashian), owe their place in the celebrity firmament to her life-giving, cash-producing light. Her combined Instagram and Twitter followings would be the 10th-most-populous country on the planet. When she puts you on blast, the earth shakes (shake shake shake shake shake).
The amplifying factor of Kim’s marriage to Kanye West means that virtually everything that happens in the wider pop-cultural sphere can be connected back to her.
Taylor Swift’s recent state of general shookness? Kim was in the room went the shit went down. Drake and Rihanna’s possible sexless relationship? Kim and Kanye are Drizzy’s relationship idols. Disgraced Olympic swimmer, fugitive from Brazilian justice, and Dancing With the Stars pariah Ryan Lochte once prepped for his failed reality show by bingeing episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Her posts per day (PPD), a staggering 14,000, actually seems low.
2. Jules Wainstein, ‘The Real Housewives of New York City’
This is a huge upset and a perfect example of recency bias. It’s true that the just-completed season of The Real Housewives of New York City was perhaps the most entertaining ever. It featured:
- A greasy bridge-and-tunnel dry-cleaning king
- Allegations of copious drug snorting
- Bethenny showing LuAnn a picture of her fiancé making out with some random woman
- Ramona’s ongoing inability to pronounce “reggae”
- At least two divorces, including Jules’s disintegrating eight-year union
Even so, coming in second on the list, above the non-Kim members of the Kardashian brood and Aaron Rodgers’s estranged brother, is a pretty shocking result.
Much of Wainstein’s CUPE is based on coverage of her salacious divorce. But with a PPD of just 1, and Wainstein not returning for a second season of RHoNYC, Jules’s heat is disappearing like Dorinda fleeing to the Berkshires. Expect her CUPE to fall precipitously.
3. Jordan Rodgers, ‘The Bachelorette’
“I wish him well in the competition.” — Super Bowl XLV MVP and two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers
Every final rose recipient on the The Bachelor and The Bachelorette receives a content bump. We can attribute this to ongoing buzz from the finale and a general interest, beyond the show’s fan base, in the winning contestant’s biography. There’s always going to be speculation that two people who met on a game show after a bruising, often arduous process might not be authentic soulmates.
Jordan Rodgers is a special case. He is, as we all know, a failed pro quarterback and the younger brother of NFL superstar Aaron Rodgers, which adds an element of familial drama to The Bachelorette’s content cycle. Sibling rivalry is powerful. Humiliation, The Bachelorette’s stock-in-trade, is powerful. In ninth grade, I dunked on my brother during a driveway pickup game (we lowered the rim to 8 feet), and I still think about it like twice a week. I’m sure he does, too, though we never speak of it. Every second watching and calling SEC football for Jordan Rodgers must be an exercise in suppressed misery.
4. Kylie Jenner, ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’
5. Kendall Jenner, ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’
The 5,000–6,000 range of PPD for Kylie and Kendall is actually relatively low considering their historical stats. Over the same 24-hour period one year ago, for example, Kylie and Kendall had PPDs in excess of 73,000 and 65,000, respectively.
Considering their ages and their ascendent roles in the Kardashianverse, I expect Kylie and Kendall to be locks for the CUPE top five for the foreseeable future. Everything they do creates creates content, resulting in a storm of frenetic posts that read like celeb mad libs.
As of Tuesday, the previous 24 hours of Kylie stories included uproar over her wearing a do-rag; pics of her exiting a private jet with Tyga while wearing a red velour jumpsuit and praising the heroes of 9/11; and the possibility that she might wed Tyga without a prenup (no way Kris Jenner lets that happen).
Kendall’s past day of headlines included posts about what she wore while out for a stroll with Lewis Hamilton; her attending ex-flame Nick Jonas’s concert; and the striking resemblance her new haircut has to the style worn by her mom.
The knock on the Kardashian-Jenners is they’re famous for being famous. That’s true. But, as the level of CUPE-generating scrutiny they’re under shows, being this famous is a job unto itself.
6. Joe Giudice, ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’
Note to self: Apparently it’s illegal to obtain bank loans and mortgages using forged documents and your brother’s driver’s licence. Who knew? Joe and his wife, Teresa, pleaded guilty to various fraud charges in 2014. Teresa was released from jail after nearly a year inside, in late December 2015. Joe went into the federal penitentiary at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in March to begin serving his 41-month sentence. The period when both convicted criminals were out forms the basis for RHoNJ’s seventh season. And, of course, the buzz generated by Juicy Joe’s continuing legal problems (he’s a citizen of Italy, not the United States, and as a convicted felon he faces likely deportation) creates a monster CUPE score. [Kisses fingers like an Italian chef.]
7. Khloé Kardashian, ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’
Khloé recently began a relationship with Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson, cementing her reputation as reality television’s foremost connoisseur of fourth-best players on NBA title teams. The couple is still in the “are they really dating?” phase. But, as the NBA season approaches, expect her robust CUPE range of 4,000–4,500 to increase as speculation over LeBron’s feelings about the relationship picks up.
8. Yolanda Hadid, ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’
Yolanda charges into the top 10 on the strength of her contentious performance on this past season of RHoBH and being mother to models and tangential Kardiashianverse figures Gigi and Bella Hadid. Much of Yolanda’s recent PPD is focused on allegations hurled by castmate Lisa Rinna that Hadid is either consciously faking that she has Lyme disease or is suffering from Munchausen syndrome, i.e., she’s unconsciously faking Lyme disease.
9. Ben Higgins, ‘The Bachelor’
Get a good look while you can. Basic Ben’s nuptials to Bachelor Season 20 winner Lauren Bushnell were just announced. Unless Higgins gets a gig hosting a talk show sometime soon, his overall CUPE will continue to plummet. Ben has the lowest raw total content score (Google News hits with no time frame) in the top 10, with 82,000 Google hits.
10. Heather Dubrow, ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’
Another surprise. Season 11 of RHoOC is drawing to a close. But why Dubrow makes the top 10 instead of, say, Meghan King Edmonds (18th on the CUPE list, wife of ex-MLBer Jim Edmonds, leader in the Season 10 crusade to expose Brooks Ayers for faking cancer) or original cast member Vicki Gunvalson (Brooks’s ex-girlfriend who recently almost died in a dune buggy accident) is tough to explain.
Odds and Ends
- MTV’s The Challenge might be America’s unofficial fifth major sport, but its “stars” struggle to generate clicks and CUPE. The Challenge, much like the NFL, will always be bigger than its star players. Sarah Rice, with a relatively pedestrian 358.4 CUPE, is the show’s content star, based mainly on the uproar surrounding her backstabbing at the hands of Johnny Bananas (250.9) after the finale competition.
- Rivals III runners-up Vince and Jenna have a combined 5.3 CUPE. If he were still an active Challenge participant, CT (142.8) would have the third-highest CUPE, behind Sarah and Johnny Bananas. Devin Walker-Molaghan (0.3) has the lowest CUPE yet measured. Someone, please blog about him.
- Competition-based reality television (Big Brother, Survivor, The Challenge) produces vastly less content and individual CUPE scores than do dramatic reality series. The top-scoring cast member in a reality competition is Big Brother 18’s Paul, a.k.a. the dude I’m not rooting for because he lives in a Beverly Hills mansion with his parents and doesn’t need the money.
- Lala Kent, Instagram model and alleged international escort, is the highest-scoring member of The Vanderpump Rules after only one season. She recently announced that she won’t be returning for Season 5. (Sidebar: The Vanderpump Rules is the best reality show on television.)
- Professional Patrick Bateman impersonator Scott Disick (1,515.6) is the lowest-scoring member of the Kardashianverse.
- The Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kandi Burruss (193.2) is the lowest-scoring active member of any Real Housewives franchise (not counting overseas versions).