‘Young Sheldon’ Is Set to End as It Finds a New Audience on Netflix

‘Young Sheldon’ Is Set to End as It Finds a New Audience on Netflix

By Oghale May16,2024

On Thursday, “Young Sheldon,” the successful CBS spinoff of “The Big Bang Theory,” will air its final episode, concluding a seven-year run.

“Young Sheldon” never quite captured the same spot in the zeitgeist as its predecessor. But the series does have an unusual distinction: The overall run of the show mirrors the story of the television business over the last seven years. Here’s how.

On the one hand, “Young Sheldon” had the ingredients for a surefire hit. “The Big Bang Theory” was a big success, and could help bring a strong lead-in audience. The new show had the CBS hitmaker Chuck Lorre behind it. It was, in the words of one top CBS executive, “the quickest pitch and the quickest ‘yes’ in the history of television.”

“Young Sheldon” was born during the height of so-called Peak TV, when a record number of shows were being produced and media companies were spending huge amounts of money to make them.

On the other hand, there were numerous challenges.

In 2017, the year the show first aired, broadcast television was losing viewers to streaming video and social media, and runaway network hits were becoming vanishingly rare.

To make matters more complicated, Mr. Lorre decided to forgo the studio audience and multicamera format that had made him a household name in favor of using a single camera. That decision was in keeping with most comedies in 2017, as the roaring laughter of a studio audience fell out of favor, and moodier single-cam comedies like “Atlanta” and “Master of None” quickly gained traction. But it was something Mr. Lorre had never done before.

“At the time, there were lots of concerns — Chuck and I were just trying to figure out how a single cam worked,” said Steven Molaro, who created “Young Sheldon” with Mr. Lorre.

It did work. In its first season, “Young Sheldon” averaged more than 16 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen’s delayed viewing data, making it one of the most-watched shows on television.

A few years into the show, the situation for broadcast television had gone from bad to worse. As the pandemic took hold, subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ soared, and network ratings collapsed even more.

“Young Sheldon” had maintained its position as one of the most-watched network shows, but its ratings were plummeting. By 2020, in the third year of the show, “Young Sheldon” had five million fewer viewers than in its first season. By 2022, it had lost more than half that first-season audience, averaging about seven million viewers per episode.

Younger viewers — the ones that matter most to advertisers — were really fleeing. In 2018, the median age of a “Young Sheldon” viewer was 57 years old. By the show’s sixth season, it was “65+,” according to Nielsen.

Perhaps this helps explain why “Young Sheldon” never captured the same pop culture status as “Big Bang,” which minted catchphrases (Bazinga!) and populated critics’ year-end best lists. “The Big Bang Theory” notched 55 Emmy nominations over its run, and its star, Jim Parsons, won for best actor in a comedy four times.

But by the early 2020s, network sitcoms were frowned upon, with Emmy voters preferring premium streaming fare like “Fleabag,” “Ted Lasso” and “The Bear.” To wit, “Young Sheldon” has not yet received a single Emmy nomination.

In November, CBS announced the inevitable: “Young Sheldon” would end in 2024, after seven seasons. The show’s young star, Iain Armitage, was growing older, and industry executives believed the show was approaching its endpoint.

But within weeks of that announcement, with very little fanfare, the first five seasons of “Young Sheldon” began streaming on Netflix. This was also part of a trend. Traditional media companies were losing advertising revenue as more viewers left traditional television, and needed to find money elsewhere. Warner Bros., the studio behind “Young Sheldon,” began licensing some marquee titles to Netflix to drum up cash. Netflix, at this point, had become the runaway leader in the streaming wars, and had money to spend on older programming.

And then a surprising thing happened. “Young Sheldon” became a bona fide streaming hit. The series stormed to the top of the Nielsen streaming charts, outranking new original shows with lavish budgets and perennial streaming blockbusters like “Bluey” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The show also struck a chord with viewers under the age of 34, according to Nielsen. Mr. Molaro, the show’s co-creator, said the Netflix bump became apparent to him when the crew was shooting a scene recently near a church in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. “Young Sheldon” had filmed in that location dozens of times without incident. But this time, roughly five months after the show began streaming on Netflix, it was a vastly different situation.

“There were hundreds of kids at the fence screaming for Wallace Shawn,” he said, referring to the 80-year-old cast member. “We were like, ‘What is happening?’”

As Mr. Lorre put it in an interview: “One of the cool things is, the median age on Netflix is 30. On CBS, it’s 65-to-cadaver.”

“Young Sheldon” is exiting an industry vastly different from the one it started in. And in many ways, the industry is beginning to learn lessons from its past.

Peak TV is officially over, with studios everywhere slashing budgets and producing fewer television shows.

Studio executives are also beginning to realize that the streaming success of repeats of older shows like “Young Sheldon,” “NCIS” and “Suits” may prove that the old network approach to creating broadly popular series wasn’t so bad after all. Streaming companies and studios are suddenly becoming interested in old network standbys like medical procedurals and legal dramas.

In March, after “Young Sheldon” became a solid streaming hit, CBS ordered a spinoff, “Georgie & Mandy’s First Marriage,” focused on two characters in “Sheldon.” But the series order came with a twist: It would bring a studio audience back, as well as a multicamera format.

In addition to “Georgie & Mandy,” Netflix ordered a comedy from Mr. Lorre last month centered on the comedian Leanne Morgan. The show will also be a multicamera production, and the studio audience is coming back, too.

“That’s my training,” Mr. Lorre said of multicamera shows. “I did that for 30 years. It’s ingrained in me.”

As Steven Holland, an executive producer of “Young Sheldon” as well as the coming spinoff, put it: “It was really fun and exciting doing a single cam, but doing multicam feels a little like going home.”

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By Oghale

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