The Reality Moguls

Kwaku Alston

Kim Kardashian & Kris Jenner

Be honest, it's happened. You're sitting around on a Sunday night and you accidentally-on-purpose stumble upon an episode of E!'s Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami. You're not sure which, because -- let's face it -- they're all sort of the same. But after a few minutes of mindless bickering, high-frequency baby talk and countless blank stares, you realize that you haven't changed the channel. Don't worry: You're not alone. In fact, nearly 10.5 million viewers tuned in between Oct. 9 and Oct. 10 to watch the E! spectacular Kim's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event. And when Kim Kardashian filed for divorce in late October -- after only 72 days of marriage to NBA forward Kris Humphries and a reported $10 million wedding -- the reality star made worldwide headlines, appearing as the top story on nearly every news show, website and magazine cover (trumping such stories as the Occupy Wall Street protests and the financial crisis in Greece). Cries of backlash, plus a boycott movement, ran rampant.

With Kourtney and Kim Take New York's second season set to bow four weeks later, many of those experiencing Kardashian-fatigue gleefully waited for the series to fail. But defying all expectations (in true Kardashian form), the cycle premiered Nov. 27 to record-breaking numbers, scoring the franchise's highest-rated premiere to date with nearly 3.2 million viewers. Once again proving themselves indestructible, reality TV's royal family beat the odds, becoming the first true test case of how reality fame can be stretched well beyond its 15 minutes. And how an entire network identity can be built on it.

NBCUniversal cable entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer, who added E! to her portfolio earlier this year, recently revealed plans to create three to four more cycles of the Kardashians' reality franchise, most likely spotlighting the two youngest sisters: Kendall, 16, and Kylie, 14 (both technically Jenners). "These shows could really go on for years," says the newly single Kim, 31, who says she's looking forward to a fresh start in 2012. "There are so many of us, but I think we'll see more of my younger siblings."

But the shows are just one piece of their reality empire. Last year, the Kardashian family matriarch, Kris Jenner, helped the family bring home a whopping $65 million from an onslaught of deals, from popular dietary supplements and a $1 million Las Vegas appearance fee to the hyper-lucrative Sears Kardashian Kollection clothing line and six-figure weekly-magazine contracts. "I'm really proud at how hard we've all worked this year and what we've accomplished," says the 56-year-old momager. "We roll as one big unit, so whether something's sad, happy or tragic, we come together as a family and everything falls into place."

Since their 2007 television debut, this ever-growing family (Kourtney Kardashian, 32, is expecting her second child with boyfriend Scott Disick, 28) has continued to redefine what it means to be a "reality star" and continues challenging industry expectation. When others would hide, they confront; when some might worry about overkill, they double down. Love them or hate them, the Kardashians have taken Hollywood. -- leslie bruce

Photographed by Kwaku Alston on Dec. 7 at The Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills