Does The Big Bang Theory’s Finale Signal the Demise of Blockbuster TV Sitcoms?

Brands are shelling out big money for Thursday’s farewell—and looking for its successor

The Big Bang Theory reaches the finish line of a record-setting run.
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

TV’s biggest moment this week won’t occur during any upfront event, but rather on Thursday night, when CBS airs the series finale of The Big Bang Theory. The longest-running multi-camera series in TV history (with 279 episodes over 12 seasons), The Big Bang Theory has been the last remaining blockbuster sitcom in the streaming era: like Friends, Two and a Half Men and Seinfeld before it, its episodes drew enormous audiences not only in original airings but also repeats and syndication. “In addition to being the biggest show on TV, it’s one of the best,” said CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl. “In a career, if you can work on a show or two that touches that level of success, you’re pretty fortunate.”

And the series, still a ratings juggernaut, is going out on top: It’s the No. 1 comedy this season among adults 18-49 in Nielsen’s most current ratings (averaging a 3.7) and is No. 2 in total viewers among all prime-time programs (behind only Sunday Night Football), with 17.4 million. CBS is securing as much as $1.5 million per 30-second spot for Thursday’s hour-long finale—roughly five times the average cost for an ad on the show this season—with strong demand from movie studios, tech and food companies. The network has also scheduled a 30-minute retrospective at 9:30 p.m., following Big Bang prequel Young Sheldon’s season finale, which will add additional ad revenue.

“A lot of our clients want those cultural moments. They want to be part of history, part of what people are talking about, they want to be part of live,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director, integrated investments at MullenLowe’s Mediahub, about the appeal of big series finales like Big Bang’s. “These are opportunities to be creative with your advertising or play off the event, whether it’s through your social media or something else.”

Big Bang won’t cease being a major revenue stream after Thursday’s finale. WarnerMedia, whose Warner Bros. Television produces the series, has held the series back from streaming in its entirety. “It will have tremendous value in subscription video on demand,” said Warner Bros. Television Group president and chief content officer Peter Roth. The smart money is that the show will be a part of WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, but the company said no final decision has been made. “We’re not sure yet. Time will tell,” said Roth. “But you can be sure that when we go out with it, we’ll exploit it to its fullest.”

CBS hopes Young Sheldon can pick up where The Big Bang Theory left off as a ratings juggernaut.
Erik Voake/CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Those involved with the show said they are optimistic its finale doesn’t signal the end of an era—or of broadcast TV’s reign. “How many times have we heard over the years that this is over? And then a good show comes along—and it’s not over. It’s cyclical,” said Chuck Lorre, the show’s co-creator and executive producer. Added Roth, “I would never count out the value of a great, well-crafted multi-camera comedy. It still is not only a staple of television, but a staple in American homes.”

Kahl said that “there’s always room for the next show that speaks to people and crosses generations—and maybe that show hasn’t revealed itself yet.” After all, he pointed out, it took Big Bang three or four seasons to blossom into the gargantuan hit that it is now. “So maybe there’s some show on now that will reach that level, or maybe something new in the fall,” he said.

CBS hopes that Young Sheldon will be that show, and is expected to announce at Wednesday’s upfront event that the prequel will take over Big Bang’s Thursday 8 p.m. time slot next season. “Whenever the big shows go away, the first question is always, ‘What do we have in reserve?’ And knowing we have Young Sheldon is obviously comforting,” said Kahl.

Buyers are also hopeful that mass appeal sitcoms aren’t a thing of the past, given that the Roseanne revival’s huge ratings last year (before Roseanne Barr’s behavior prompted ABC to cancel it) proved that the right show can still draw mammoth audiences. “I don’t think it’s the end of an era,” said Drinkwater. “I hope it’s an inspiration for more to come, that there is a simplistic humor that plays well across the country that people still want to watch.”


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This story first appeared in the May 13, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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