With Young Sheldon, CBS Is Trying to Turn The Big Bang Theory Into a Big Franchise

Network wants the prequel to become its next long-running hit sitcom

Iain Armitage plays young Sheldon.
Robert Voets/CBS

Chuck Lorre has created several huge TV hits over the past two decades, including Two and a Half Men, Dharma & Greg and now The Big Bang Theory, but he had always resisted spinning any of them off. “I don’t like that,” said Lorre. “I’m fundamentally opposed to taking something that’s working and cannibalizing it to make something else.”

But with The Big Bang Theory—which in Season 10 remained TV’s most-watched series—getting closer to the end of its run (see sidebar), he’s making an exception for Young Sheldon, a Big Bang prequel focusing on Sheldon Cooper (with Iain Armitage stepping in for Jim Parsons), as a 9-year-old child genius growing up in Texas.

The idea was sparked by Parsons, who spoke with Lorre about his nephew, “an astonishingly intelligent little boy” around the same age in Texas, said Lorre. That led to a discussion about turning Sheldon’s backstory into a series. A prequel “isn’t quite the same situation” as what Lorre had feared with a spinoff, added Steven Molaro, who co-created the show with him. “You haven’t taken Sheldon off of Big Bang.” (Parsons, who is an executive producer on the prequel, also serves as Young Sheldon’s narrator.)

"When we move to Thursday, we hope to come back with an even greater core audience than we left with."
-Kelly Kahl, president, CBS Entertainment

While prequels have a mixed TV track record in recent years (for every Better Call Saul or Gotham, there’s a Taken or The Carrie Diaries), saying yes to Young Sheldon was a no-brainer for CBS, which has benefitted from Big Bang’s long, lucrative run. In Season 10, The Big Bang Theory was the No. 1 comedy in the 18-49 demo (notching a 4.9 rating), with 18.5 million total viewers, making it TV’s most-watched series. “You’d love to set out to create a show that would appeal to everybody, but it’s very hard to do,” said CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, who noted that going back to Murphy Brown, his network has always had one long-running hit sitcom pass the baton to the next (most recently, Big Bang stepping in for Two and a Half Men). “We’ve always had that next show, and we’re hoping Sheldon can be that for us.”

So the network is trying to build the biggest audience possible, debuting Young Sheldon Monday night immediately after Big Bang’s season premiere, which resolves the Season 9 cliffhanger surrounding Sheldon’s proposal and should “get as many people to the Young Sheldon premiere as we can,” said Kahl. But then, Young Sheldon won’t air again until Nov. 2, after CBS’ Thursday Night Football package concludes.

Kahl admitted the scheduling approach is “unusual,” but noted that a single-camera series requires more production time than a multicam program like Big Bang, and he wanted extra time to build word of mouth for the premiere episode, which in focus groups has been resonating with non-Big Bang viewers as well. “We want to use that time to reach out to those fans, through word of mouth and additional promotion in our other shows,” said Kahl. “So when we move to Thursday, we hope to come back with an even greater core audience than we left with.”

In a fall with few new freshman shows that buyers are excited about, Young Sheldon is a rare “safe bet,” said Nick Hartofilis, evp of national investment, Zenith. “You could potentially come on as a viewer who had never watched Big Bang before, and be really entertained by it.” And Lorre can rest easy: buyers don’t think that turning Big Bang into a franchise will erode interest in either show.  Said Hartofilis, “More people are thinking about the [Big Bang ratings] halo than, are you jumping the shark here?”

Bye-Bye, ‘Big’?

In March, CBS and Big Bang producer Warner Bros. Television reached a new two-year deal for The Big Bang Theory, extending it through Season 12 in 2018-19. After that, Lorre thinks his hit sitcom will end its run—probably. Then again, five seasons into the series, “we wouldn’t have anticipated being here for Year 11 and 12,” he said. “So while it seems very likely that we would wrap the show at the end of 12 seasons, it would be presumptuous to say, ‘That’s definitely what’s going to happen!’”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 25, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.