Television ratings aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days of not only everyone watching one show at the same time, but everyone even knowing about the same shows is long gone. There’s so much TV out there that it’s impossible to keep up. The idea that somewhere around 80 or 90 million people tuned in to watch the series finale of Cheers seems absolutely ludicrous, a figure that’s difficult to comprehend in this day and age.
“Ratings juggernaut,” in 2019, is a relative term, especially when it can be hard to determine ratings when you take piracy into account, and the fact that Netflix doesn’t release its viewer numbers. Game Of Thrones was considered a ratings juggernaut when it was averaging around 5 million viewers per episode; initial broadcastsof its final season, airing concurrently with The Big Bang Theory, are being watched by upwards of 12 million viewers. The same was said of the early seasons of The Walking Dead, which drew an impressive 12 million or so per episode. And yet these shows, these prestige dramas and others like them that seemingly define our cultural conversation, can’t come close to competing with CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, which is about to air its series finale after 12 seasons on the air. The show has consistently drawn 18 to 20 million viewers since its sixth season, a number practically unheard of in the last 10 years. How can we account for this popularity? What made a sitcom about a bunch of nerds so immensely popular?
The fact is, there isn’t all that much unique about The Big Bang Theory. It’s a tame sitcom that’s easy to watch for a lot of people. It’s no Black-ish or Fresh Off The Boat, but when considering a show like Modern Family and its rapid descent into complacency, there’s something to be said for The Big Bang Theory managing to not only harness the mainstreaming of nerd culture to become a dominant force in the ratings, but to also find ways to transcend that by rooting its more important character arcs in actual emotional growth. Whether it was Sheldon gradually learning to be a more open, empathetic person or Leonard learning how to be a good partner in a relationship where he’s constantly insecure, the show, in its later years, evolved.
Originally, the show was happy to point and laugh at grown men who like superheroes and Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons—an easy target that also occasionally deserves the criticism—but The Big Bang Theory eventually had to shift gears because of the changing pop culture landscape, giving its women bigger roles and moving toward something more like a family sitcom, with weddings, pregnancies, and relationships that ebbed and flow.
The Big Bang Theory debuted in the fall of 2007, when Hollywood was just coming off the success of the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man trilogy. Iron Man, the film that became the first in a 22-movie, 10-year-long epic, would dominate the box office the following summer. The Harry Potter films were on an incredible run. A change was coming. Just a few years later Game Of Thrones would become a hit, Marvel would essentially own the box office, and superhero TV shows would earn Greg Berlanti more money than he could ever hope to spend. Nerd culture was no longer a cursory interest, a guilty pleasure, or a niche kind of fandom. It was the mainstream, and still is. That kind of visibility, that kind of familiarity with the intellectual property of Marvel and DC, Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings—which arguably set the stage for the MCU back in the early 2000s—meant that the references and interests of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj weren’t the interests of outcasts, but rather the norm for most people that age.
If all of that hadn’t happened, if the culture hadn’t shifted and found big money in the world of spandex and wizards, perhaps The Big Bang Theory wouldn’t have become such a hit, a dominant force in network ratings in an age when shows struggle to retain viewership across a single season, never mind 12 seasons of pretty impressive numbers. Who knows if the show will be remembered fondly decades from now, but as a historical artifact it’s incredibly interesting.
Without the rising mainstream popularity of superhero properties and nerd culture, The Big Bang Theory likely wouldn’t have become such a cultural staple. The Big Bang Theory didn’t shape the cultural moment, but it did feed off of it in a way that fundamentally changed the show. Those early seasons are all about poking fun at these nerds and their nerdy interests. Once those interests became the interests of the many though, the show couldn’t exactly keep cutting them down. With Game Of Thrones becoming a ratings sensation, like it did in its later seasons—the final season is holding steady at about 11 to 12 million same-day viewers, with a big jump when streaming is included for the cumulative number—it’s not “weird” or “niche” for these characters to care so much about it. Many fans are having visceral reactions when it comes to the final season of Game Of Thrones not meeting their expectations, and that’s because they care about these characters. The same can be said of reactions to Avengers: Endgame. It’s the kind of passion and intensity that The Big Bang Theory would treat as immature in its first few seasons. But as that kind of fan engagement and entitlement became the norm, the show had to find a new angle on these characters and their arcs.
Perhaps then, The Big Bang Theory didn’t just coast on pop culture references at a time when they became familiar to a larger swath of viewers. Perhaps that familiarity was a happy accident that forced the show to become something better, to question its premise and the butt of its jokes and instead pay more attention to character motivation, wants, and needs. Simply riding the coattails of mainstream nerd culture isn’t enough for longevity and ratings dominance. Characters and storytelling are still the beating heart of a show, and The Big Bang Theory, for all its flaws, managed to last by maturing alongside the pop culture fare it originally set out to poke fun at.