As a society, we are now used to seeing huge budgets attached to Hollywood blockbusters, but when it comes to television show budgets, we’re usually a bit (or a lot) surprised at the staggering costs attached to each episode. A combination of cast salaries, elaborate costume designs, detailed sets, special effects, exotic shooting locations, and extensive post production requirements add up to hefty price tags for the following fourteen most expensive television series ever made. For some of these shows, the high budget was completely worth it given the success and popularity of the show – but for others it was an ambitious flop.
14. The Walking Dead – $2.75 million
The hit show The Walking Dead has become a cult phenomenon and it currently has the highest total viewership of any series in cable history. The season five premiere had viewership totaling 17.3 million, making it the most-watched series episode in cable history. Given the popularity of the show, it should come as no surprise that each episode has a budget of $2.75 million. The budget is mostly due to costume design, makeup, special effects, and a large cast. The Walking Dead has fairly simplistic filming locations, taking place mostly in woods and abandoned buildings in Atlanta, Georgia. Most of the salaries of the cast are unknown, aside from Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus who reportedly each earn $90,000 per episode. Considering the fact that Jim Parsons earns $1 million per episode for The Big Bang Theory, Lincoln and Reedus are quite underpaid given the similarity in success of both shows.
13. Breaking Bad – $3.5 million
The hit show Breaking Bad aired on the AMC network for five seasons, from 2008-2013. It tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer, who turns to a life of crime of selling and manufacturing meth along side his former student, Jesse Pinkman. The show is widely regarded as one of the greatest shows ever made and in 2013, Breaking Bad entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most critically acclaimed show of all time. The show’s $3.5 million per episode budget was clearly well worth the money. The budget went to Bryan Cranston‘s $225,000 per episode salary, Aaron Paul‘s $150,000 per episode salary, set designs, special effects, and shooting locations.
12. Fringe – $4 million
The sci-fi thriller Fringe cost Fox $10 million for the pilot and around $4 million per episode for its five season run. The show follows the casework of the Fringe Division, which investigates cases relating to fringe science. The $10 million pilot budget was due to filming in many locations, including New York which became very costly. After the show was renewed for season two, production was moved from New York to Vancouver as a way of cutting costs. The series aired from 2008 to 2013, starting out strong but eventually struggled to retain viewership. The complicated and hard to follow story line and the shows lack of profit led to its downfall.
11. Lost – $4 million
The hit television show Lost told the story of a group of strangers that survive a plane crash and subsequently are stranded on a deserted island. It becomes apparent that there’s more to the island and that they are all in some way connected. The show aired from 2004-2010 and had a $4 million per episode budget. This was mostly due to the fact that the cast was so large, which began with seventy adults and one dog. Another contributing factor to the bloated budget was shooting on location in Oahu, Hawaii.
10. Terra Nova – $4 million
Terra Nova premiered on Fox in 2011 and the network had high hopes for the Steven Spielberg produced science fiction drama. The pilot alone cost $10 million and each episode following had a budget of $4 million, which was mostly due to special effects and set design. Terra Nova had more than 250 sets designed for it. It was an ambitious flop and was proof that a big budget doesn’t always equal commercial success. The show was cancelled after the first season.
9. Deadwood – $4.5 million
HBO’s Deadwood aired from 2004 – 2006 and cost a staggering $4.5 million per episode. The western series combined true events with fictional events to create an appealing story line. The show was based on real events that surrounded a gold rush in Deadwood, South Dakota. According to the New York Times, the show had a large cast and unique set designs as well as horses, wagons, and livestock coordinators. Like other HBO shows, the huge budget was its downfall, since it was cancelled after two seasons due its high costs.
8. True Blood – $5 million
True Blood aired on HBO from 2008-2014. Thanks to the release of the first Twilight film in 2008, vampires were very trendy and HBO along with several other networks jumped on the vampire wagon. The large cast, set design, and makeup/costumes gave the vampire series a price tag of $5 million per episode. Although the show premiered with low ratings of 1.4 million viewers, it quickly grew in popularity. Unlike other high-budget HBO shows that typically receive 2-3 seasons, True Blood remained on the air for seven seasons thanks to his strong fan base.
7. Boardwalk Empire – $5 million
The hit show Boardwalk Empire is no exception to HBO’s typical massive production budgets. Each episode costs a staggering $5 million and the Boardwalk Empire pilot cost $18 million. The lavish production details eat up the largest part of the budget as USA Today reported, that the show’s boardwalk set was built in a Brooklyn parking lot and cost $2 million to create. The show chronicles the life of Nucky Thompson during the Prohibition era, a bootlegger who is part politician, part gangster, and ruler of Atlantic City. The show’s fifth and final season aired last year.
6. Game of Thrones – $6 million
The hit HBO show Game of Thrones costs around $6 million per episode. Like its other television shows, the huge budget is due to set and costume design and large casts. The show is filmed in a Belfast studio as well as on location in Croatia, Iceland, Malta, Morocco, Northern Ireland, Spain, Scotland, and the United States. Set in the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, “Summers span decades. Winters can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun” – Game of Thrones uses its large budget to create an entire new world with fantastical characters and incredible special effects.
5. Camelot – $7 million
Camelot premiered on the Starz network in 2011 receiving moderate viewership. The period drama had a per episode budget of $7 million, which was mostly due to a large cast and expensive costume and set designs in order to accurately and convincingly portray medieval times. Unfortunately, Camelot was not the ratings success the network had hoped for. The show premiered around the same time as HBO’s period drama Game of Thrones, which became a huge hit, while Camelot was cancelled after one season.
4. Rome – $9 million
HBO set the bar high with the series Rome, which aired from 2005-2007. Producers went all out to ensure an accurate depiction of what it was like for one to survive during Roman times. HBO shelled out huge amounts of money for elaborate costume designs and detailed sets – which amounted to a production budget of $9 million per episode. The show was well-received, but its absorbent budget was its downfall as well. HBO executives decided to ax the show in order to save on production costs in Italy.
3. Marco Polo – $9 million
Marco Polo premiered on Netflix in 2014 and like other high-budget period dramas, it required a hefty price tag due to exotic filming locations, large casts, elaborate costume designs, and detailed sets. These requirements amounted to a budget of $9 million per episode. Unfortunately, since Netflix does not release viewership ratings – it’s unclear as to how popular the show actually is. However, Netflix has renewed Marco Polo for a second season, which is set to release in June 2016.
2. Friends – $10 million
Unlike the other television shows in this list, the high per episode cost wasn’t due to expensive special effects or set and costume designs. Friends mainly took place in a coffee shop and two apartments – so what exactly made this popular show cost $10 million per episode to produce? Thanks to its popularity from 1994-2004, the six stars of the show Jennifer Aniston, Matt Le Blanc, David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and Courtney Cox, rallied together for fair pay and were able to demand salaries of $1 million per episode in the final few seasons of the show. On top of that, Friends hosted a number of A-list guest stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Bruce Willis, among others.
1. ER – $13 million
With fifteen seasons and 331 episodes, ER is one of the longest running TV drama series to date. The show aired on NBC from 1994 – 2009, and starred A-list actor, George Clooney. ER is an American medical drama series that follows the inner life of the emergency room at the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago. In 2000, the previous budget of $1.9 million per episode ballooned up to $13 million per episode due to NBC having to fork over $10 million per episode to Warner Bros. Television for the rights to continue to air the show for the 2000-2001 season.
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