Life After the ‘Big Bang Theory’: How CBS Is Preparing for the End of Its Long-Running Sitcom

“I can’t pretend I’m happy it’s going away,” entertainment president Kelly Kahl tells TheWrap

The Big Bang Theory Stage Dedication
Warner Bros.

If you ask CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, he’ll tell you how he really feels about the upcoming end of “The Big Bang Theory,” which will wrap its 12-season run in May.

“I can’t pretend I’m happy it’s going away,” Kahl told TheWrap. “I don’t know how many other comedies have had such an amazing and consistent run.”

When the series ends, it will finish as the longest-running multi-camera series in television history, with a total of 279 episodes, though Kahl had initially hoped it would go even longer. Last summer, he sounded optimistic that the show would return for a 13th season, but instead now has to figure out how to replace “Big Bang Theory’s” massive shoes. But Kahl believes they already have a ready-made replacement in their own “Big Bang” universe with “Young Sheldon.”

The spinoff, which follows a younger version of Jim Parson’s Sheldon Cooper growing up in Texas, averaged north of 16 million viewers during its debut season, and was handed a two-season renewal last month, a vote of confidence that the series can become the new anchor for CBS’ comedy lineup. Kahl said no decision has been made just yet on whether “Young Sheldon” will inherit the “Big Bang” timeslot leading off Thursdays, but he’s bullish that it can be the same launchpad to lead into new series that “Big Bang” was for so many years.

“We’re fortunate to have another show lined up, a young show lined up and teed up to maybe take its spot. We hope its ‘Sheldon,’ but it’s not necessarily a given to go in that timeslot,” Kahl said, who predicted it will be the top-rated sitcom next season. “It’s good to have that and knowing you can use that to kind of build off of and still have some pockets of strength in comedy.”

But replacing “Big Bang” will still be a Herculean task, as few series have mattered more to CBS.

It’s been among the top 3 most-watched series on TV for the last seven years, earning 10 Emmy wins including four consecutive Best Actor in a Comedy wins for star Jim Parsons. “The Big Bang Theory” has also been a financial boon for CBS and studio Warner Bros., amassing anywhere between $125 million and $150 million in advertising revenue and more than $1 billion in syndication for studio Warner Bros. TV, according to the Los Angeles Times. (Reps for Warner Bros. and CBS declined to comment on those figures.)

“I don’t think the show has gotten anywhere near the credit it deserves for how good it is,” Kahl said.

During a set visit in February attended by TheWrap, the importance of the show was fully on display.

There was Warner Bros. TV group president Peter Roth walking around the show’s sound stage – Stage 25 – at Warner Bros.’ Burbank studio. Roth was giving giant bear hugs to cast members including Kunal Nayyar (Rajesh Koothrappali), Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter), as well as series co-creator Chuck Lorre, as each walked by him.

The cast and crew were getting ready to do the run-through for the episode titled, “The Conference Valuation,” which airs this Thursday. This was the first time they would go through the script on the set. The crew of roughly 50-60 people followed the cast around from scene to scene, huddling around as a stand-in for the studio audience, to help the actors know when to pause for laughs.

After the run-through, the cast and grew gathered so Roth could officially re-name the Stage 25 as “The Big Bang Theory Stage,” only the fifth time Warner Bros. has dedicated a specific studio (and the second time for Lorre, who experienced the same thing with “Two and a Half Men”). The room was filled with tears, hugs and everything else you could imagine from a group that’s spent the last 12 years together, which is a lifetime in the entertainment business.

There was a time when the series wasn’t sure it would make it past Season 1, but it can thank the Writers Guild of America Strike in 2007 to 2008 for inadvertently giving it a second chance. “We didn’t know if we would get a second season,” Chuck Lorre, who co-created “The Big Bang Theory” with Bill Prady, told reporters during the set visit. “We shot eight shows before the strike and they ran those shows over and over and over again, and it built a following.”

In between the show’s first and second seasons is when Lorre said they first noticed that following. He recalled when the cast went to their first Comic-Con that summer in 2008, and saw that “thousands” of people were waiting to get into the show’s panel: “That was the first indication that something was happening that we had never anticipated.”

“We were very much on the bubble,” Galecki remembered about that strike-shortened first season. “When something is taken away from you like that, like they say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. We returned [after the strike] with a renewed pride and appreciation for being here.”

After drawing 8.3 million viewers for its first season — ranking No. 68 on TV — “The Big Bang Theory” added nearly 2 million viewers in season 2, moving up to No. 44. It would eventually average more than 20 million viewers by season 7, and was the most-viewed entertainment series during the 2017-2018 season with 18.9 million. Its final season currently is averaging 17.5 million viewers to maintain the top scripted spot on TV, according to the most recent numbers from Nielsen.

Once considered a relic from an older TV era that was chock-full of multi-cam sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “Friends,” the multi-camera format is experiencing a renaissance that “The Big Bang Theory’s” longevity is now tied into. Currently, there are 11 multi-camera comedy pilots (with a few more hybrid splits of single/multi-cam) in contention for next season.

Lorre argues there’s still a lot of life left in the format, even though he himself has a single-camera comedy, “The Kominsky Method,” at Netflix. “There’s a different energy when you’re performing in front of an audience,” he said. “When it works it’s fantastic. And it’s worked, over and over again.”