The show's pilot episode premiered on September 24, 2007. This was the second pilot produced for the show. A different pilot was produced for the 2006–07 television season but never aired. The structure of the original unaired pilot was substantially different from the series' current form. The only main characters retained in both pilots were Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons), who are named after Sheldon Leonard, a longtime figure in episodic television as producer, director and actor. A minor character, Althea (Vernee Watson), appeared in the first scene of both pilots that was retained generally as-is. The first pilot included two female lead characters - Katie, "a street-hardened, tough-as-nails woman with a vulnerable interior" (played by Canadian actress Amanda Walsh) and Gilda, a scientist colleague and friend of the male characters (played by Iris Bahr). Sheldon and Leonard meet Katie after she breaks up with a boyfriend and they invite her to share their apartment. Gilda is threatened by Katie's presence. Test audiences reacted negatively to Katie, but they liked Sheldon and Leonard. The original pilot used Thomas Dolby's hit "She Blinded Me with Science" as its theme song.
Sheldon is annoyed that Amy does not have time to work on the super-asymmetry project with him so he talks President Siebert into getting her removed from her own project at the university. Amy is angry at both of them as she wants to still have her own identity outside the marriage. When confronted by Amy, Siebert apologizes to her but states that it will be difficult for the university to give her her project back. After talking with Arthur Jeffries in a dream, Sheldon apologizes to Amy and both of them talk about their fears in their marriage. Meanwhile, Raj does not want to have Howard join him in his show at the planetarium, thinking he'd just use his astronaut status to make it about himself. Raj eventually lets him join in and Raj and Howard spend the whole time complimenting each other, surprising Bernadette, Leonard and Penny.
Sheldon and Amy's paper is a huge success, but Sheldon is upset when he is not allowed to do interviews, while Amy gets all the attention. Denise asks Stuart to move in with her but he panics and flees. Raj sets up a doorbell camera app for Anu but sees her greet her ex-boyfriend. At a paintball match, all the feuding couples argue, with Raj saying he cannot trust Anu since he does not even know her, throwing the wedding into question. Stuart makes up with Denise by giving her a key to the Wolowitz house. Sheldon tries to do one interview with Amy but leaves when he is asked about the Russian scientists who had earlier disproved their theory.
Warner Bros. Television controls the online rights for the show. Full episodes are available at tv.com, while short clips and recently aired full episodes are available on cbs.com. In Canada, recent episode(s) and pictures are available on CTV.ca. Additionally in Canada, the first six seasons are available for streaming on Bell Media's CraveTV. After the show has aired in New Zealand the shows are available in full online at TVNZ's on demand web service.
The Big Bang Theory started off slowly in the ratings, failing to make the top 50 in its first season (ranking 68th), and ranking 40th in its second season. When the third season premiered on September 21, 2009, however, The Big Bang Theory ranked as CBS's highest-rated show of that evening in the adults 18–49 demographic (4.6/10) along with a then-series-high 12.83 million viewers. After the first three seasons aired at different times on Monday nights, CBS moved the show to Thursdays at 8:00 ET for the 2010–2011 schedule, to be in direct competition with NBC's Comedy Block and Fox's American Idol (then the longest reigning leading primetime show on U.S. television from 2004 to 2011). During its fourth season, it became television's highest rated comedy, just barely beating out eight-year champ Two and a Half Men. However, in the age 18–49 demographic (the show's target age range), it was the second highest rated comedy, behind ABC's Modern Family. The fifth season opened with viewing figures of over 14 million.
By season seven, Galecki, Parsons, and Cuoco were also receiving 0.25% of the series' back-end money. Before production began on the eighth season, the three plus Helberg and Nayyar, looked to renegotiate new contracts, with Galecki, Parsons, and Cuoco seeking around $1 million per episode, as well as more back-end money. Contracts were signed in the beginning of August 2014, giving the three principal actors an estimated $1 million per episode for three years, with the possibility to extend for a fourth year. The deals also include larger pieces of the show, signing bonuses, production deals, and advances towards the back-end. Helberg and Nayyar were also able to renegotiate their contracts, giving them a per-episode pay in the "mid-six-figure range", up from around $100,000 per episode they each received in years prior. The duo, who were looking to have salary parity with Parsons, Galecki, and Cuoco, signed their contracts after the studio and producers threatened to write the characters out of the series if a deal could not be reached before the start of production on season eight. By season 10, Helberg and Nayyar reached the $1 million per episode parity with Parsons, Galecki, and Cuoco, due to a clause in their deals signed in 2014.
There was an unaired pilot which CBS did not broadcast. In March 2017, CBS announced that the series was renewed for two more years, leading the show to a total of 12 seasons. The twelfth season premiered on September 24, 2018, and served as the series' final season. During the course of the series, 279 episodes of The Big Bang Theory aired over 12 seasons.
Star Trek in particular is frequently referenced and Sheldon identifies strongly with the character of Spock, so much so that when he is given a used napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy as a Christmas gift from Penny he is overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude ("I possess the DNA of Leonard Nimoy?!"). Star Trek: The Original Series cast member George Takei has made a cameo, and Leonard Nimoy made a cameo as the voice of Sheldon's vintage Mr. Spock action figure (both cameos were in dream sequences). Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton have had cameos as themselves, while Wil Wheaton has a recurring role as a fictionalized version of himself. Leonard and Sheldon have had conversations in the Klingon language.