‘Big Bang Theory’ vs. ‘Parks and Recreation’: Why the Startling Ratings Gap?

Bang Theory vs Parks and Rec

Chasm between shows widens on DVR viewing

In a sense, there are two kinds of fans of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”

  • The ones who also like CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” but can’t understand why that show crushes “Parks” so badly in the ratings.
  • The ones who don’t like CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and can’t understand why that show crushes “Parks” so badly in the ratings.

I’m a member of the first group, but that’s not really important. The question isn’t why there’s a ratings gap between the two shows, but why is it so freakin’ big?

How big?

Taking last week’s numbers as an example, “Big Bang” drew a 5.1 rating in the 18-49 demo and 17.6 million viewers overall, while its Thursday 8 p.m. counterpart “Parks” managed a 1.2 and 3.2 million.

If you think it’s a case of a bunch of viewers DVR-ing “Parks,” while watching “Big Bang,” think again. When the delayed viewing numbers come in, the gap between the two shows widens.

In Live+3 last week, “Big Bang” improved to a 7.2 rating in the demo, a gain of 41% (2.1 ratings points).  By comparison, “Parks” improved to a 1.6, a 33% gain (0.4 ratings points) on a much smaller base number to begin with.

Sure, CBS brings a bigger foundation of viewers to the table, while NBC is far removed from the days of “Must-See” Thursdays. You could also argue that the multi-cam, set-up/joke style of “Big Bang” is easier to settle into than the more nuanced (I almost wrote “cerebral,” but that diminishes “Bang” unfairly) single-cam stylings of “Parks.”

And there’s no doubt that “Big Bang” has benefited from how its syndication saturation widened its tent of viewers, while “Parks” is just getting started down that road.

On the other hand, it’s not as if “Parks” has so little going for it. The cast is nothing if not marketable. Amy Poehler is the former “Saturday Night Live” star and brilliant comic actress who also happens to be part of the most sought-after awards-hosting duo in the business. Aziz Ansari has a hot standup career. Chris Pratt has evolved from lovable oaf to action star. Retta is one of the most adept users of social media around. Rob Lowe is … Rob Lowe.  That’s before you even get to Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Aubrey Plaza, not to mention great guest casting.

I mean, is any character more tailored for a hunk of CBS’ audience than Nick Offerman’s Ron “F’in” Swanson?

Though there are some fans of one show who might find the comparison to the other demeaning, the sensibilities and humor of the two shows are not all that different. Their styles might differ, but both are clever, exceedingly warm and the opposite of mean-spirited. Even the ostensible targets of derision, such as Jerry (Jim O’Heir) are treated with affection. Both series value their characters and serialize their arcs.

“Big Bang” might be multicam, but it’s probably the smartest multicam sitcom around. Its viewership should embrace “Parks” more than the numbers indicate.  It’s not as if “Parks” is rocket science to follow or to find the jokes in — or for that matter, the beauty.

Weigh it all together, and as much you expect some gap, the size of the gap remains hard to fathom.

“CBS has been more successful with viewers whereas NBC has been struggling to get an audience,” Horizon Media senior research veep Brad Adgate told Variety. “I think that’s a factor. Plus ‘Big Bang’ is on a top-rated cable network on primetime every night, unlike ‘Parks.’ ‘Big Bang’ is a show that viewers will seek out. I think ‘Parks’ needs help for viewers to find it. It is mysterious, though, I agree.  It’s kind of strange, but ‘Big Bang’ is so popular it just kind of builds. “

The chasm has implications beyond the fate of “Parks” itself for NBC, which is struggling more than ever with its Thursday lineup in its first season since “30 Rock” and “The Office” bid farewell. Newcomers “Welcome to the Family,” “Sean Saves the World” and “The Michael J. Fox Show” are in dire straits to various degrees. A new season of “Community” remains at NBC’s disposal, but that’s another example of a cult favorite, not a ratings solution.

All the people at “Parks” can do is continue trying to make the best show they can make.

“As far as ratings go, I don’t really think about it,” “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Michael Schur told Variety. “Or, I try not to.  All I know for sure is that the number that comes out at 8 a.m. every day is a wildly inaccurate picture of the number of people who watch any show, and everyone needs to stop reporting it as such.  As far as one show versus another, who knows?  It’s not one thing — like network or timeslot or something — it’s a combo platter, and one I do not fully understand.

“I (do) think ‘Big Bang’ is an extremely well-made show, and it is not at all a surprise to me that it is a smash hit.”

At the end of the day, maybe the NBC marketing solution should be this: “If you like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ then you should give ‘Parks and Recreation’ a try.”

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  1. Jim says:

    Ben Wyatt is more realistic example of a nerd than any character on The Big Bang Theory

  2. john says:

    Parks and Rec is another not-that-funny show vastly overrated by the elitist snobbery like 30 rock and Arrested Development. Like Tine Fey, Amy Poehler is not as funny as she thinks she is.

  3. Gary Tucker says:

    This is the only sitcom that I can laugh as hard at a re-run as I did at the original. The comedy is quite unique and in tune with today’s world. At the same time you are following Penny and Leonard, you are equally interested in what happens between Penny and Sheldon, and Amy and Sheldon. Then there are all the moms. The program is a work of genius.

  4. Jim says:

    The Big Bang theory is some of the stupidest sh*t I’ve ever seen. It truly makes dumb people feel like they are smart. Parks and Rec is an incredibly layered show that knows when it’s being dumb and doesn’t try to say “we’re so smart and clever!” when it is indeed being smart and clever.

    • john says:

      Ironically you post screams “I’m so smart and clever” and labels TBBT viewers as dumb. A perfect example of why Parks & Rec is not a popular show like Big Bang. Neither you nor the show is being smart and clever

  5. David says:

    There seems to be many “standards” by which a program (or movie) is judge and my experience is that the ‘critics’ or ‘judges’ rarely agree with me on likes/dislikes. In this case, the viewers seem to prefer – though not exclusively, one show over the other. In addition, I am 74 and enjoy comedy a LOT; e.g., “Big Bang Theory”, “Modern Family” and “Last Man Standing”. However, I do not care for “Crazy Ones”. This is a case, IMHO, of the cast neutralizing much of what Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Geller bring to the party. Is this a case of “too many comedians spoil the show”?

  6. Tim Hillesheim says:

    Parks stands on its own as a complete ensemble of characters. You could go as far as to get rid of Amy Poehler and the show would still stand on its own. There’s a ton of great characters with a lot of great sub plots.

    If you get rid of someone on Big Bang the show would feel very different.

  7. HornDoggler says:

    Simple one show is on a real Network and the other is not

  8. Crystal says:

    As a “from day-1” fan of BBT, I can tell you why there’s a gap: you missed the option of ‘the BBT fans that may have looked at Parks in early seasons and found it trite and rather uninspiring’. I recorded it early on, but after viewing the first half dozen or so shows, stopped recording it. The actors may be good, but the characters aren’t appealing, and I found nothing remotely ‘cerebral’ about the humor. If “Parks” has improved, the greater problem NBC has is pitting it against BBT.

    • Michelle says:

      You actually bring up a very interesting point. Season 1 of Parks and Rec got off to a very rocky start. Some of the early episodes were cringeworthy and the show felt like an inferior clone of The Office. I too stopped recording after a few episodes, but gave it another try in season 3 based on the recommendation of a friend, and it’s since become my favorite comedy. The show that airs today bears little resemblance to the first season – the tone is different, the characters are more developed and interesting, the worst character was written off and replace by two much better ones, and the writing is witty and sharp. The problem is that while I was one of the ones willing to give it a second look, there are probably far more people like yourself who dismissed it and never looked back. I know it would be a tricky thing to pull off, but I’m not sure why they’ve never taken this into account and tried to win back some of those potential viewers.

      I also don’t understand why NBC insists on keeping it on Thursdays. There’s too much scripted competition, not to mention football in the fall, when there are other nights of the week where the competing broadcast networks are much more vulnerable. They’ve bounced it all over the Thursday schedule, but have never once tried airing it on a different night of the week where it might have had a chance to be sampled by more people. But this is NBC we’re talking about, the network so incompetent that it botched the launch of Michael J. Fox’s return to TV. They’ve done some things right – The Voice, The Blacklist – but they are clueless when it comes to comedy.

  9. Matt says:

    I love Parks and Recreation. I’m not sure why it has had such trouble growing it’s audience but it is not the only show on NBC struggling to build an audience. I only pay attention to ratings in so far that they can threaten a show continuing or not, and that would be a shame because Parks is still going strong in a creative sense. There are more than just ratings to consider though. Netflix, DVD, Bluray, DVR, piracy. Lots of ways for a show to be profitable(or seen) than just tuning in when it airs.

    I’ve seen the first five seasons of BBT. I don’t hate it and I don’t love it. I usually enjoy it when I see it.

  10. cadavra says:

    PARKS has had six seasons to prove itself and still hasn’t grown past the 2.5-3.5 million range. Yet NBC keeps renewing this yawnfest, while axing HARRY’S LAW, which averaged three or four times as many viewers. PARKS just isn’t funny; BIG BANG is. And that, folks, is indeed not rocket science.

    • john says:

      you are correct. see the replies from Parks and Rec fans who do nothing but insult viewers of the TBBT.

      • Rob says:

        Don’t want to insult viewers of TBBT, but the humour is so repetitive and the show relies on 1 character, Sheldon. I don’t think it’s a bad show but wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it. I find the characters in Parks and Rec far more interesting… and funny.

    • You wouldn’t think Big Bang was funny if it didn’t have a laugh track telling you when to laugh. Parks is brilliant. Big Bang is bad. TBBT goes for the easy and predictable jokes every time. Old people and stupid people get the references and that’s why it draws so many people in.

    • sdlkjfdf says:

      Yeah, The Big Bang Theory is awful and Parks and Rec is awesome. I’m sorry but your sense of humor is wrong.

    • The Big Bang Theory is awful. Haha! Nerd said something funny! Piece of crap show.

  11. Carla Comarella says:

    I can only judge the two shows from my reaction. From the first episode TBBT made me not just laugh out, but almost fall out of my chair and pee my pants laugh and has not stopped. I tried to watch Parks, but no such reaction.

  12. Brian says:

    “I almost wrote “cerebral,” but that diminishes “Bang” unfairly”

    No, it wouldn’t be unfair. I find it fascinating that BBF is celebrated as this brilliant show. As a nerd, I find its stereotypes excruciating at the best of times, hence why I’ve only seen it whenever other people have had the show on in the room. I read an article once which compared Sheldon from BBF to Abed from “Community”, noting that the latter was presented in a sympathetic light – even a heroic one – while Sheldon was a subject to be laughed at, rather than with.

    I’m much more partial to P&R, though as has been noted it’s more cerebral (I would also say more subtle) and this doesn’t necessarily woo the mass market.

  13. VV says:

    I love both shows. Both are brilliant in their own rite. For me, I do not watch P&R because my DVR can only handle two shows at a time so for me, that’s Big Bang and XFactor.

  14. boodoo says:

    Big bang Theory is easy jokes, the same every time and predictable. Silly scientists! Awkward guys! Uncreative s3x joke! Parks and Recreation is more clever. However, people like their tv accesible, and Parks and Recreation certainly tries too hard at times, especially when it tries to be risque with bluntness.

    While you ntoe that CBS viewers would identify with Ron Swanson, they would also see that while the show teases nanny state liberals, it very much thinks the Ron Swanson mindset is dumb, and people see that too, a la Colbert, and don’t like the ‘fancy pants hip elitists’ mocking them. So simple, mindless CBS “Two and Half Men” dressed up with some scientific jargon it is.

    • Jon Weisman says:

      Parks doesn’t see Ron as dumb. Extreme, yes, but not dumb – just as Leslie is extreme in her fervent belief in government can solve all problems. I think the show lands somewhere in between them, as the two often meet in the middle. I’m not going to say the show isn’t sympathetic to liberals but it also is sympathetic to conservatives – its romantic hero, Ben Wyatt, is passionate about cutting budgets. In other words, something for everyone.

  15. Ciao says:

    I feel that Big Bang is far more episodic, so it’s easy to get into/jump in. A character might have growth, but that growth doesn’t necessarily affect how the other episodes play out. Whereas Parks is far more serial in its narrative. It’s a lot easier/quicker to explain to a first time viewer the just of Big Bang than Parks (which takes a bit more investment so people might not jump on the wagon at this juncture).

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