Sunday, 4 February 2018

The most expensive TV shows of all time

Last year there were a couple of attempts to make a list of the most expensive TV series of all time, which failed because they used radically outdated information and didn't take account of some of the newer shows on the block. So let's take a stab at this with slightly better information.

It should be noted that this list applies to ongoing TV shows, not special event mini-series or made-for-TV (or streaming) movies. Including those projects, the 10-episode HBO event series The Pacific is comfortably the most expensive TV show ever made with a budget approaching $270 million, or a mind-boggling $27 million per episode. John Adams, another HBO mini-series, spent $100 million on 7 episodes, meaning it matched the seventh season of Game of Thrones at around $14 million per hour. Band of Brothers, The Pacific's forebear, cost $125 million for 10 episodes, with an additional $15 million in marketing.

14: Lost
$132 million for Season 1

Lost gets onto the lower end of this list by dint of it's Season 1 budgeting set-up. The show was budgeted at around $4 million per episode - already on the high end of things for a 2004 network TV show - but the cost of getting J.J. Abrams on board and setting up a filming facility in Hawaii saw the budget blast upwards to almost $6 million per episode. The pilot alone cost $14 million and saw the production team have to fly in an actual aircraft fuselage for the crash scenes. They then had to remove the wreckage and leave the Hawaiian beach in absolutely pristine condition. This cost a fortune. ABC's financial department was so aghast that the head of the network was fired on the spot. Fortunately, Lost turned out to be the biggest and most popular show ABC had launched in years and it made a healthy profit in foreign sales. In addition, with the set-up work done for the first season, later seasons were able to drop the budget to around $5 million per episode, and this was reduced further when Seasons 4-6 were given shorter orders.

13: Altered Carbon
$7 million per episode (Season 1)

The newest show on this list, Netflix's Altered Carbon features not just elaborate sets (including a full futuristic cyberpunk street that could be shot from multiple angles to depict different parts of the city) and stunning CGI, but also cutting-edge filming techniques involving state-of-the-art 5K cameras and some incredibly elaborate action sequences. Thanks to basing shooting in Canada, the show was able to deliver a formidable amount of production value for an - by Netflix standards - relatively modest budget.

12: Stranger Things
$8 million per episode (Season 2)

For its debut season, Stranger Things was given a $6 million budget by Netflix, perhaps a sign that they were not expecting great things from this drama (contrasted to the much bigger budgets given to Marco Polo and The Get Down). Fortunately, the show was a break-out mega-hit for the network and its second season was given a hefty budget increase (indeed, some reports suggest that, including marketing, it may have been closer to $9 million per episode). With Season 2 hinting that the show might start moving further afield from its small town setting, we may see this jump higher in future seasons.

11. Star Trek: Discovery
$8.5 million per episode (Season 1, after budget overruns)

As the show to launch CBS All Access, relaunch the franchise on screen and lead the charge for CBS's new take on Star Trek (in opposition to Paramount's films), Star Trek: Discovery was given a very generous opening budget of $7 million per episode. After the show had been "Fullerised" (see later on for an explanation), that budget somehow came out at around $1.5 million per episode higher. Still, the show looks it, with fantastic visuals and draw-dropping sets. Fortunately, the show was pre-sold in a special deal to Netflix that put it in profit before a second of footage was shot, so CBS came out way ahead on the deal.

10. Westworld
$9 million per episode (Season 1)

Westworld, HBO's SF epic, is expensive and looks it. The show's budget was, unusually, patterned irregularly, with each episode budgeted according to script need far ahead of time. It's more normal for a studio to assign a per-episode budget and then leave it up to the showrunners how they divide that (resulting in those famous "bottle episodes" of TV series with few or guest cast and shot entirely on the standing sets, usually following very expensive ones; Breaking Bad's The Fly may be the best recent example). This pattern budget moved from $25 million (for the pilot and the cost of constructing the standing sets) to $8 million for the cheapest episode of the season and then up to $10 million for the most expensive, leaving the average somewhere around $9 million.

9. Sense8
$9 million per episode (Season 2)

The first season of Sense8 cost a cool $7 million per episode, making it one of the most expensive shows ever back in those ancient days of, er, 2015. With its elaborate stunts and fight scenes and globe-trotting nature - the show shot in 8 different cities in 7 different countries - the show also looked like it put every penny on screen. Alas, the second season saw significant cost overruns, including the questionable decision to add several shooting days in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at a moment's notice which put over $2 million extra on the budget. With Season 2 underperforming in viewing figures - although some of that is on Netflix, who dubiously chose to keep marketing their drama 13 Reasons Why instead of switching on the marketing for Sense8 Season 2, meaning lots of people missed that it had been released - and the Wachowskis unwilling to compromise on the budget, Netflix canned the show. After a mass outcry, they did agree to fund a 2-hour TV movie to round the series off, which will air later this year.

8. Marco Polo
$9 million per episode (Season 1 & 2)

Netflix poured a lot of money in the visuals and cast for this huge, sprawling costume epic, which they hoped would be their very own Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, a lacklustre script, poor critical reception and lukewarm viewing figures saw it canned after two seasons.

7. Rome
$9.5 million per episode (Season 1)

HBO and the BBC poured a huge amount of money into this show, buoyed by the success of their previous collaboration on Band of Brothers. Alas, the TV market in 2005 was not ready for a show this expensive. Poor viewing figures in the UK - not helped by the decision to cut a full episode from the first season run (with scenes ham-fistedly inserted into other episodes) - saw them pull funding after the second season and HBO panicked and shut down the show. Just a few years later they admitted they'd made a massive mistake, as DVD and Blu-Ray sales had been stratospheric and the show later had a critical reappraisal that saw it elevated to being considered one of HBO's finest accomplishments. With the elaborate sets in Italy still standing (currently being used as a tourist attraction), it's possible we could even see a return for HBO to the Roman Empire: they've been considering a fresh adaptation of I, Claudius for a few years which would effectively be Rome: The Next Generation.

6. Friends
$10 million per episode (Season 10)

One of the biggest factors that kills a show is the cost of keeping your increasingly famous cast on-board. For the final season of Friends, the cast had negotiated a mind-boggling $1 million per episode each, meaning each episode cost $6 million before a frame of footage was shot. This was unsustainable for NBC and they decided to end the show after the tenth season, despite the show's continuing worldwide popularity. A bigger mystery might actually be what on earth the other $4 million per episode was spent on.

5. American Gods
$10 million per episode (Season 2, Season 1 after budget overruns)

To adapt Neil Gaiman's award-winning fantasy novel, Starz gave producer Bryan Fuller a very healthy budget of $7 million per episode. However, this proved insufficient for Fuller's needs and the season eventually emerged $30 million over-budget, to the network's palpable displeasure. What saved American Gods from immediate cancellation was a highly lucrative international distribution deal with Amazon outside the US. What couldn't save Fuller was that, having "Fullerised" the first season, he received an offer to make Season 2 for $9 million per episode, which he took to be a budget cut (rather than a $2 million per episode budget increase, which is very definitely how Starz saw it) and objected to. Unable to reach an accommodation, he left his second show that he'd managed to burden with budget overruns in the same year (Star Trek: Discovery having already been through the same thing). Fortunately, Neil Gaiman and Jesse Alexander have taken the reigns for the second season, promising to rein in costs, so hopefully the story will now be completed as planned.

4. The Get Down
$12 million per episode (Season 1, with reported cost overruns going much higher)

Netflix budgeted for an impressive $133 million for the first season of The Get Down, which was extraordinarily generous. However, it was the cost of working with Baz Luhrmann, the visionary director behind films such as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann, it turned out, did not like working under such tight restrictions and went over-budget. A lot. Some reports place the show's final budget for its first season of 11 episodes at somewhere closer to $200 million. With poor streaming figures and a mixed critical reception, Netflix understandably dropped the project like a hot potato.

3. E.R.
$13 million per episode (Season 6)

In comfortably the most expensive network TV deal of all time, NBC shelled out an insane $13 million per episode for the sixth season of E.R. This came about because Warner Brothers produced the show under contract for NBC and this contract ended after Season 5. CBS offered a higher amount of money, forcing NBC into a bidding war which crippled the show's finances. Later seasons saw viewing figures decrease, so NBC was able to negotiated a lower fee, much to the relief of their bean-counters.

2. The Crown
$13 million per episode (Season 2)

Netflix's most successful series of all time is also its most expensive. This lavish period drama about the early years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign has an all-star cast, complete with meticulous set reconstructions of real locations and elaborate (if mostly invisible) effects to sell the period setting.

1. Game of Thrones
$16.6 million per episode (Season 8)

Game of Thrones started off relatively modest, with a budget of $6 million per episode for the first season. HBO could have gone higher but decided to start modestly after the debacle of earlier expensive shows like Rome. The budget grew quickly: $6.9 million per episode for the second season, over $7 million per episode for the third season and so on until it hit the magic $10 million per episode barrier in Season 6. For Seasons 7 and 8 producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss requested fewer episodes so they could spend more time on producing them, but HBO generously allowed them to keep the same production budget, which meant that Season 7 of Thrones (7 episodes) came in at over $14 million per episode and Season 8 (6 episodes) at over $16 million. This isn't including HBO's lavish marketing and advertising for the show as well. Thrones has set new benchmarks in TV production quality but also expense, which is something that TV production companies may eventually come to rue. But for HBO, it's worked splendidly.

There are challengers on the horizon, however. Game of Thrones has a spin-off prequel in the planning stages which will likely be expensive (just not as expensive as the mothership in its last few seasons). Sony Television are working on a Wheel of Time series which can't help but be quite pricey. Netflix's fantasy drama The Witcher will likely have significant production costs, as will Showtime's Kingkiller Chronicle prequel show.

But the two hundred-pound gorillas in the room are Disney and Amazon. Disney have a live-action Star Wars TV series in pre-production under conditions of tremendous secrecy. Given it won't just be the first-ever live-action Star Wars show but will also be launching Disney's new streaming service in late 2019, there's a lot riding on the show and they will spending accordingly (there will also be a new Marvel live-action show to help launch the service). Even more formidable is Amazon's deal with Warner Brothers and the Tolkien Estate to buy the rights to make a Lord of the Rings prequel show. A rumoured $250 million was shelled out just for the rights, with a commitment to spend $150 million per season for five seasons. Including the rights costs, this would comfortably make the new show (expected to air in 2020) the most expensive TV series ever made.

In the midst of all these figures flying around, it may be instructive to remember that you can still get a popular show for a lot less money. The second-biggest TV show in the world (after Game of Thrones) right now is AMC's The Walking Dead, which costs that network an astonishingly low $2.75 million per episode, despite its huge cast and elaborate make-up effects. If you ever wondered why The Walking Dead seems incapable of getting its cast into just one episode and spends five episodes of people walking around looking constipated for every episode of decent character and plot development, now you know.

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Bob/Sally said...

Wow. E.R. I can understand, but Friends boggles my mind. I suspect the other $4 million was spent on the laugh track. :)

Anonymous said...

I take it all back. Spending $10m on an episode of American Gods now looks like responsible budgeting...

... compared to Friends.

I get spending obscene amounts on the core cast, given their fame at the time and the iconic status of the show. It's not like they could have recast the show at that point.

...but $4m per episode for the bits that AREN'T the friends? What the HELL? Could that budget BE any more ridiculous?

I mean, there were 18 episodes in season 10. That's $72m! DID THEY BUILD THEIR OWN SKYSCRAPER!? How was it physically possible to spend $4m on 20 minutes of small-cast, fixed-camera comedy almost entirely taking place within three or four fixed sets that they'd built years before!?

I can only assume that even the extras were on tens of thousands of dollars per episode...


Anyway, on a more serious note: it's all kind of worrying for fantasy TV. We seem to have gotten this idea that fantasy on TV requires colossal budgets... but not yet the idea that fantasy on TV requires competent screenplays. I have to fear that most of this big slate of massive fantasy projects is going to fail miserably*, and that the financial wreckage they leave behind will scare producers off fantasy for a good long while.

Which is a shame, because although of course flaming-dragon-fantasy is going to cost, there's a lot of fantasy that just needs some tattered tunics and a bit of woodland to film - OK, it's always going to take a big budget (costumes, location shooting, occasional CG), but it doesn't have to be up at GOT levels. Or even American Gods levels, I feel.

*I suspect they've misunderstood popularity as well. The most popular fantasy series with fantasy fans are not necessarily going to be the most popular fantasy series with the general public - ASOIAF succeeded because it had massive crossover appeal. I'm just not sure I see the same crossover appeal for, say, WOT, which is much more high fantasy, much more overtly quest-driven, and much cheesier. If they stick close to the novels, at any rate. [the one thing going for it is that it does at least have "what's really going on?" watercooler moments to provoke discussion. They should lean into that, and make it more a fantasy-mystery-thriller, rather than ASOIAF's fantasy-mafia thing.]

Space Cadet Juan said...

According to this article the Big Bang Theory is about 9 mil an episode at this point, and they make a lot more episodes per season than prestige cable shows

Brett said...

Altered Carbon was a lot cheaper than I thought. I'd read accounts that it was really expensive, but it doesn't seem that expensive compared to other Netflix productions. It had half the budget of The Crown.

I had heard that The Get Down was incredibly expensive. It's hilarious that they couldn't keep Luhrmann from bloating out the budget by nearly $70 million - I'm surprised they didn't fire him mid-production once it became clear that was happening.

I'm going to bet that either the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars pilot will set a new record for expensive pilot episodes, too. I'm guessing $40 million for the former, which would still leave more than $10 million/episode for the rest of the season.

The Pacific budget is just mind-boggling, even for a mini-series. Can you imagine what Game of Thrones would be like with $27 million/episode on average? They could have episodes that were more or less full-blown movies in their own right in budget and running time.

H.P. @ Hillbilly Highways said...

If the Westworld pilot cost $25 million and the second most expensive episode cost $10 million, then even if every other episode cost $8 million, the average would still be $10 million per episode, not $9 million.

Anonymous said...

There is also the upcoming netflix show lost in space that's going to premiere this may, a while ago a member of the crew posted on wikipedia that the production valeus r really high and the budget was between 14 to 15 million $/ episode! this post does not exist now and was deleted! but i experct it to be true since it really dove into details about the show that nobody would know except they were really involved with the show! lost in space is going to be a legendary tv production the studio behind monsters hits like jurassic world, pacifi rim, skull island etc.... they also produce a show on usa that i love called colony, that is a small show but really looks great everytime they show the wall the aliens built.

Anonymous said...

Although GOT's budget for its last season seems huge, I'm worried it will actually prove too small given the huge amount of CGI that will be required. The three dragons, the army of the dead, the armies of the living, hopefully some sightings of Ghost, all the other special effects... Will only about two million more per episode compared to season seven be enough?

Anonymous said...

The Pacific 20 mil an episode

Adam Whitehead said...

"It should be noted that this list applies to ongoing TV shows, not special event mini-series or made-for-TV (or streaming) movies. Including those projects, the 10-episode HBO event series The Pacific is comfortably the most expensive TV show ever made with a budget approaching $270 million, or a mind-boggling $27 million per episode. John Adams, another HBO mini-series, spent $100 million on 7 episodes, meaning it matched the seventh season of Game of Thrones at around $14 million per hour. Band of Brothers, The Pacific's forebear, cost $125 million for 10 episodes, with an additional $15 million in marketing."