This Sunday at 8 p.m., E! Entertainment TV will premiere Caitlyn Jenner's show "I Am Cait."
The network is calling the show a "documentary series," in an attempt to differentiate it from the reality shows featuring the Kardashians that have helped sustain the network's ratings for years.
While those reality shows still perform relatively well, the network's overall ratings in recent years have been slipping. E! averaged 648,000 primetime viewers in the 2011-2012 TV season, but in the TV season that just ended, its prime time average was down to 540,000 viewers, according to figures provided by the ratings firm Nielsen.
The Kardashian franchise has begun to show its age, says Joe Adalian, West Coast editor for New York Magazine's Vulture.com.
"E's problem is what a lot of cable networks face," Adalian says, "which is splintered audiences and not a lot new coming on board" to capture audiences' attention. "And that's why 'I Am Cait' could potentially be a game changer for E!," he says.
A game changer, because the intense media and public interest in Caitlyn Jenner is likely to fuel huge audiences for the show, at least initially. Jenner's interview on ABC's news magazine "20/20" reached almost 17 million viewers. Those are numbers "20/20" hadn't seen in 15 years, Adalian says.
"I have no doubt that E!, especially after the Diane Sawyer interview came out and did so well, was able to go back to advertisers and say, 'I think you want to be here,'" he says.
Initial reviews of the series have been somewhat positive, which may give E! executives hope that "I Am Cait" might help improve the network's fortunes.
"The E! Network has had problems in the last couple of years, because they haven't been able to launch new original programming, and some of their go-tos lagged in recent years," says Michael O'Connell, TV writer for The Hollywood Reporter.
"It's sort of had to rely on these sort of celebrity-focused docu-series," says O'Connell, "But it really is the Kardashian brand that carries them in prime time, especially in between award season, when they do so well with their red carpet coverage."
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