'Young Sheldon' remains a hit on Netflix. Experts explain what makes the CBS sitcom a streaming success.

"It’s an old school, half-hour comedy — and those are getting rarer and rarer," one expert tells Yahoo.

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A bow-tied Iain Armitage playing Young Sheldon.
CBS's Young Sheldon is seeing a surge of viewership at Netflix, and the show hasn't even stopped airing on network television. (Bill Inoshita/CBS via Getty Images)

While CBS recently announced that Young Sheldon is ending its run with its upcoming seventh season, the sitcom is seeing a notable surge in viewership over at Netflix.

For the second week in a row, Seasons 1 and 2 of The Big Bang Theory’s spin-off prequel series made the streaming service's Top 10 television chart in the U.S. as well as its Global Top 10 chart for English-language shows.

Young Sheldon Season 1 garnered 13.9 hours viewed worldwide for the week of Dec. 4-Dec.10, while Season 2 saw 10.3 hours during the same timeframe. Netflix data showed Season 1 had 19.3 million hours viewed worldwide and Season 2 had 12.1 million hours for the week of Nov. 27 to Dec. 3. The show was added to the streaming platform on Nov. 24.

The achievement is particularly notable. Unlike other shows that saw similar spikes on streaming after ending their respective runs on network TV — Suits, which ended at USA Network in 2019, for example, or Ballers, which aired its HBO finale in 2019 — Young Sheldon is climbing the charts at the same time it is actively being broadcast on CBS.

What is Young Sheldon?

Young Sheldon is the spin-off prequel series to another CBS hit, The Big Bang Theory, both of which were created by Chuck Lorre and Steven Molaro. It first aired on CBS in 2017 and centers on the child backstory of Sheldon Cooper, a role originally played by Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory. Parsons lends his voice as the adult narrator in the spin-off series, with Iain Armitage playing the younger Sheldon.

Set in the late 1980s and early '90s, the show chronicles Sheldon’s early life in East Texas as a child prodigy with a genius-level IQ and a strong interest in science and math. He enters high school at the age of 9, which ultimately leads him to hilarious and often challenging situations. Also starring are Zoe Perry as Sheldon's understanding and protective mom, Mary; Lance Barber as Sheldon’s sports-loving father, George Sr., and Montana Jordan and Raegan Revord as his siblings, Georgie and Missy.

The show has an 82% average audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Throughout its run on CBS, it saw an estimated 11 million viewers per episode in both live and multi-platform viewings, Variety reported.

After its 2017 premiere, Yahoo Entertainment declared it "the fall's best network sitcom," praising its "clever casting," noting that the only challenge for the show going forward is to "keep young Sheldon a believable likable kid." Entertainment Weekly called it "sweet and inoffensive comfort food." Still, not everyone was a fan. New York Times said the show wasn't funny, writing its "punch lines — or whatever is setting where punch lines are supposed to be — only come from Sheldon’s inappropriate responses."

Streaming Young Sheldon

In 2020, HBO Max (now Max) acquired the streaming rights to Young Sheldon. On Nov. 24, Netflix began streaming the first five seasons as well when both streaming giants agreed to share streaming rights.

The sitcom's final season returns to CBS on Feb. 15, with the one-hour series finale airing on May 16, Variety reported.

The last season will be shorter, however, as a result of the 118-day actors' union strike, which ended on Nov. 9.

A family dinner-table scene from
CBS's family-friendly Big Bang Theory spin-off,Young Sheldon, is bringing in new fans on streaming services. (Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

What makes Young Sheldon different from other Netflix booms?

Young Sheldon is far from the first to see this kind of viewership boost from streaming. Suits, for example, logged over 12.8 billion minutes of viewing across Netflix and Peacock in four weeks, from June 19 to July 16, four years after ending its run on USA in 2019. Similarly, for the week of Aug. 14 to Aug. 20, the first season of Ballers garnered 18.4 million viewing hours on Netflix, four years after it was canceled by HBO.

But what makes these shows different from Young Sheldon is that they weren’t airing on network or cable television at the same time. Young Sheldon, however, is still currently being broadcast on CBS.

Very few shows have achieved such a feat, says Robert Thompson, professor of TV, radio and film at Syracuse University, largely because "streaming hasn’t been around" long enough to collect as many examples.

One we can point to, however, is Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston as a high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin. Although it originally aired on AMC from 2008 to 2013, Netflix is largely credited for boosting its popularity after making the first three seasons available to stream before its fourth season started airing on AMC — giving viewers time to catch up in real time.

"That’s when the show became a huge phenomenon,” he says. "People were trying to catch up with it on streaming so that by the time it got to its final episode [on AMC], they were all caught up. I think we’re going to see more of this in the future."

In the case of Young Sheldon, You Are What You Watch author Walt Hickey tells Yahoo Entertainment, no one needed to seek it out. It was already a smash CBS hit all on its own.

"You're talking about a decade of beloved fandom for a lot of people," Hickey says. "Young Sheldon’s success on the streaming platforms is an illustration that you can do a lot of things, but you can't fake genuine affection from your audience."

Simply put, it's a show people enjoy. "It’s an old school, half-hour comedy — and those are getting rarer and rarer," says Thompson. "It's easy to watch. It's so consumable, and it makes for good viewing while you’re doing other things."

The Young Sheldon effect

Moving to streaming creates a snowball effect, says Thompson. It allows young fans to rediscover characters years later — just as they did with classics like Star Trek and The Brady Bunch, which were not widely successful in their original run. It was only in reruns that they started to build a following.

"In the three seasons that Star Trek originally ran [1966-69], it was by no means a big hit," Thompson says. "Star Trek was discovered by 'Trekkies' who were watching them in reruns. The Brady Bunch never made it to the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings, but it became a phenomenon that spun into three motion pictures and a bunch of biographies, only after it was rediscovered in reruns."

The same may happen with Young Sheldon, he explains, making the potential for spin-offs and other properties virtually limitless — so long as the fans are still there.

Hickey predicts that streaming platforms may follow the success of Young Sheldon and other shows seeing a second life off the air by seeking to buy the library for popular cable or network shows at the tail end of their series run, pulling in new fans and subscribers they might not have had otherwise.

"You used to have a show that would run for a very long time on a network. They would develop a devoted fanbase and then sell the rights to syndicate it to cable. That was a fairly integral part to the launch of the cable business model in the '80s and '90s," he says. "I would be shocked if we don't see that happen more on streaming."

Still, executives shouldn't assume that every show will be as successful as Suits or Young Sheldon on streaming. And that’s Hollywood for you, says Thompson.

"We could say the Young Sheldon effect is happening, but there’s no way you could come up with a formula that works every time," he says. "In the end, this stuff is show business. It's not science. If it were science, we'd all be making hit television programs."

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Dec. 7, 2023 and has been updated with new information.

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