The Big Bang Theory has turned into a full-blown supernova. The sitcom, now in its sixth season, has been on a roll this year, posting ratings highs several weeks in a row. On Jan. 10, it crossed the threshold of 20 million viewers for the first time.
"We think it's pretty amazing," says executive producer Steve Molaro, who took over as showrunner this season from Bill Prady, co-creator of the series with Chuck Lorre. "It's an honor to have so many people watching the show." Molaro credits the sitcom's exposure in syndication — particularly on TBS, where Big Bang often tops the cable ratings charts — for boosting the CBS episodes. "Syndication has reached a lot of new people," he says. "I try not to get caught up in the numbers, but it's fun."
It's not a new trend: NBC's Law & Order and CBS' NCIS saw their ratings surge once syndicated episodes started blanketing cable channels. On CBS, Big Bang averaged 13.4 million viewers in season 4; but last year, after entering syndication, the show climbed to 16 million. So far this year, Big Bang is averaging a stunning 19 million.
"Every once in a while I get to speak to people who are watching the show and they'll be talking about episodes and something that we did five years ago," says Lorre. "So clearly those shows are still out there working. The show is very much alive."
When Big Bang joined NCIS in the elite 20 million-plus club in January, CBS became the first network to have two scripted series reach that large an audience in the same week since 2007. "Our economic model thrives on a show being exploited on different platforms," says CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. "Obviously, the success it's having in syndication cycles back and gives us, I think, that bump in broadcast."
The impact of the syndicated run has even hit home for Molaro, who said his children have caught up on series repeats in recent months. "In the beginning, they were bummed out that I had quit iCarly to work on The Big Bang Theory," he muses. "Now it's on all the time. I come home and sometimes say, 'Can you shut it off?'"
Big Bang was also eventually helped by a move two years ago to Thursdays at 8/7c, a time period once dominated by NBC comedies like Friends. Now ABC and NBC struggle in that slot, while Fox's singing shows in the hour have lost some teeth. The addition of Lorre's established sitcom Two and a Half Men at 8:30/7:30c this season gave Big Bang a stronger lead-out as well.
Tassler and Lorre also credit the success to Molaro's influence. "You can't tell the story this year of what's happening with The Big Bang Theory without talking about Steve Molaro, who has stepped up in an enormous way," Lorre says. "He's had a profound impact on the sensibility of the show."
With characters like Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) now firmly established, Molaro says he has been able to expand their scope "in new and fun ways. These characters are growing and getting deeper. We can do stories with a little more heart than they used to in the early days," Molaro says. "Stories that impact the characters a little bit more." That includes evolving the on-again, off-again relationship between Leonard and Penny.
Lorre says the secret sauce for a smash comedy starts with characters. "You must care about them," he says. "From the beginning, Bill and I were intent on doing a show about people who felt disenfranchised from the mainstream, and how they find each other and create a surrogate family. I think it's really easy to fall in love with these characters."
The other ingredient? You've got to bring "genuine laughs," Lorre says. "Not a smirk or a giggle or chuckle or grin, but actual laughs. That's what we're trying for."
Lorre hopes to continue his streak with his next half-hour, Mom, starring Anna Faris as a newly sober single mother in Northern California's Napa Valley. That CBS pilot will shoot in April, after Lorre's other shows wrap, so that he can use his usual crews. "We're really lucky to have Anna," Lorre says. "She's just perfect, a dream casting from my perspective. She'll have the capacity to allow the audience in, to not only get the funny working but to allow the audience to care. It goes back to the caring about the characters before the laughs come in."
Big Bang's ratings surge comes just as the networks start ordering their comedy pilots for next fall, and Tassler believes the success of her more traditional sitcoms will likely inspire her competition to schedule shows with a broader appeal. "That's certainly the conversation," Tassler says. "And I think that copying is the sincerest form of flattery, so we're fine with that.
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