At the peak of its popularity, The Big Bang Theory was banned in China, and here's the reason why. Premiering in 2007, The Big Bang Theory wasn't an instant hit despite eventually becoming one of the most successful comedies in the last decade. CBS executives had to ask co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady to rework the pilot, which resulted in several cast changes. In the end, The Big Bang Theory eventually found its ensemble, which was the backbone of its eventual success. The sitcom became so big not just in North America but in other international territories.
The Big Bang Theory's popularity can be chalked up to great timing. When it debuted, comic books films, and nerd culture, in general, were becoming more mainstream thanks to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies, as well as, the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe via Iron Man, which were both released in 2008. Meanwhile, the rise of the internet meant people from around the world were connected more than ever. This made it easier to spread the word about The Big Bang Theory, with international channels starting to air it on local live television. That list initially included China, until the sitcom was taken off the air.
In 2014, The Big Bang Theory was suddenly banned in China. This was a massive shock, considering that the nerd-centric sitcom was already airing in the region. In fact, it had already grown a massive fan base, becoming one of the most popular shows in China. American TV series doing good in the Asian country wasn't exactly a new thing at this point. Previously, Chinese viewers tuned in to a variety of shows from the US, which included Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and 2 Broke Girls, among others.
However, The Big Bang Theory was so wildly popular that it consistently outperformed its peers by reaching more than 1.3 billion views (via Time). For context, one view is equivalent to one person in the country, which means that a good percentage of the Chinese population was watching Sheldon and his friends' hijinks. Things changed, however, when China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), suddenly banned The Big Bang Theory in April 2014, pulling episodes from streaming sites like Sohu TV, iQiyi, and Youku, which were initially allowed to broadcast the sitcom. Alongside TBBT, The Good Wife, NCIS, and The Practice were also banned.
A spokesperson for the video site, Youku, shared that they were simply mandated to pull out The Big Bang Theory and the other aforementioned shows from their site. Meanwhile, another anonymous senior manager from a different company said that they were ordered to "clean their website." Calls for SARFT to clarify the move went unanswered (via The Guardian). It's worth noting that more contentious series such as Breaking Bad and House of Cards were allowed to continue to broadcast online while The Big Bang Theory's airing was halted.
Per the US Department of State's official website, SARFT eventually commented on the matter after the backlash, although the agency did so vaguely. According to the organization, they banned The Big Bang Theory and its peers either out of copyright or they violated clause 16 of the rules of online broadcasting, which prohibits pornography, violence, and "content that violates China's constitution, endangers the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, provokes trouble in society, promotes illegal religion, and triggers ethnic hatred." That being said, since SARFT didn't expound on which of these rules The Big Bang Theory specifically violated, the reason for its ban remains unclear.
Almost a decade since The Big Bang Theory was unceremoniously pulled out from China, it's still anyone's guess why the show was banned. That being said, there were various theories that popped up over the years to explain the incident. One of the most popular hypotheses for The Big Bang Theory being blocked was China supposedly wanted to limit Western's impact on its people. Considering the Chinese carefully curating entertainment for its people, this is certainly possible. There is one significant caveat to this reasoning, however. As previously mentioned, the country allowed other American programs to continue broadcasting, which effectively contradicts the proposed idea.
Another possible reason for The Big Bang Theory ban stems from how popular it had actually become in 2014. There were claims that the Chinese government didn't want nerds and geeks, who were at the forefront of the show's storytelling, to become trendy. Backing this idea up is a 2013 survey conducted by Sohu (via South China Morning Post) found that over 80 percent of those surveyed, between the ages of 24 and 34, identified themselves as "diaosi," which roughly translates to "loser," and means poor, girlfriend-less geeks. Instead of these young adults striving to change, The Big Bang Theory supposedly motivated them to lean into their natural nerdy inclinations.
Ultimately, the ban was lifted after a massive outcry from Chinese fans of The Big Bang Theory. SARFT being unable to provide a clear reason for blocking the sitcom fueled the people's movement to protest its broadcast suspension. The Big Bang Theory Chinese ban lasted for a little bit over a year, with the show coming back to the airwaves sometime in the middle of July 2015. However, the return of the Pasadena gang came with some changes. According to Fortune, full seasons must be submitted to be reviewed before they can air, meaning new The Big Bang Theory episodes that aired since then were subjected to scrutiny before broadcasting.
When The Big Bang Theory started airing again in China, the show picked up where it left off. Back in the US, it had already finished airing season 8 by May 2015, but Chinese viewers didn't start watching it until July 2015. At that point, SARFT had to watch all 24 episodes of the show before it began airing. This was the standard operating procedure for The Big Bang Theory until it ended with season 12 in 2019. Despite the significant delay in broadcast, it was undoubtedly a much better set-up for Chinese fans than not having any access to the sitcom at all.