As a lifelong North American sports fan in a “small” media market, I’ve always kept a close eye on how much player salaries in each sport cost. While a 10 year/$300 million contract may be plausible for the Yankees and Red Sox of the world, it’s just flat out of the question for my beloved Cleveland Racistlogo’s baseball team.
I’d like to think that every fan regardless of media market size has an interest or investment in how much things cost. This extends beyond even sports to fans of virtually anything. You want to know the costs for your favorite basketball team, the upcoming film adaptation of your favorite comic book or even the market for the Magic: The Gathering card you’ve had your eye on.
Still there is seemingly one cultural medium that has historically proven impervious to this fandom number crunching: television. Maybe it’s because TV shows have no box office results so we have nothing to compare their budgets to. Or maybe we’ve just taken TV shows for granted as magical entities that suddenly appear in the boxes in our living rooms. Whatever the reason – we’ve just never been that interested or invested in knowing how much TV shows cost.
Game of Thrones has changed things. Regardless of how you feel about the success of HBO’s A Song of Ice and Fire adaptation, it’s undeniable that it presents the biggest shift change yet in the ongoing war for attention between movies and TV shows. Game of Thrones looks amazing; it looks like a movie and most importantly: it looks expensive.
We want to know how much Game of Thrones costs because how could it be anything other than blockbuster action movie levels? With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the most expensive TV shows ever to see where Game of Thrones and other modern expensive-looking favorites fall. Since TV shows are constructed into distinct narrative events (episodes, seasons and series) we are going to use the “Average Cost Per Episode” as the quantity to compare each show. This way we can properly contextualize the difference between a show that spends $100 million for 10 episodes and a show that spends $100 for 13 episodes.
Another important thing to note is that all of these budgets are estimates. We gathered information from a variety of trusted sources but since it’s not common practice yet for TV studios to publish their shows’ budgets, we have to rely on a lot of reporting. Take each with a grain of salt but trust that the estimates are the best available we currently have.
10. Sense8 – $9 million per episode.
Sense8 presented an interesting case for Netflix. Back in the wild days of 2015, Netflix went on a bit of a spending spree and the Wachowski-created Sense8 seemed like a good fit. Netflix allowed Lana and Lily Wachowski to essentially shoot on any location they desired and to worry about the cost later. This led to a $9 million per episode first season along with some modest buzz and a small but passionate fanbase. Netflix then had an interesting, pop cultural case study-worthy decision to make. Was $9 million per episode a fair cost to pay for a small but devoted fanbase? Turns out it wasn’t and Sense8 was granted only one more season plus a two-hour series finale to wrap things up.
9. Marco Polo – $9 million per episode
Marco Polo is an almost identical experience to Sense8 for Netflix. Marco Polo was the streaming giant’s first effort at creating a huge budget Game of Thrones killer. The show about the Italian adventurer braving the Silk Road was granted a total budget of $90 million for 10 episodes. Things went even more poorly for Marco Polo than they did for Sense8 as Marco Polo garnered little fan or critical support and bowed out after its second season. It still did not deter Netflix in its goal for TV budget domination as you will come to find out later.
8. Rome $9.7 million per episode
With the power of hindsight, historians are able to look back at the Roman Empire and see the inevitability of its fall. The power of hindsight is similarly helpful for TV historians when looking at the fall of the HBO TV series Rome. Moreso than any other show on this list, Rome seems to be the show most doomed by its budget. At $110 million for 12 episodes, it seems that Rome was just destined to fail regardless of how many viewers it garnered. Back in 2005-2007, we just didn’t have the attention economy to support the amount of tweets, Facebook posts and other social impressions necessary to make Rome worth HBO’s while. Thankfully HBO split the costs with BBC and were pleased enough with the experience to give another swords and shields epic a shot a few years later.
7. Friends (season 10) – $10 million per episode
Look, I know this sounds absolutely insane. And it is. But it’s true. Back in 2003, Friends 10th and final season cost more money per episode than Sense8, Marco Polo or Rome. Most of this is of course due to the cast’s famously high pricetag. Matthew Perry, Courtney Cox, Jennifer Anniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, and David Schwimmer all took home $1 million per episode each. That’s $6 million per episode right there and the rest must have gone towards some really incredible catering or something.
6. Game of Thrones – $10-14 million per episode (speculation)
Here’s the show we’ve been waiting for! So we told you earlier to take each entry with a grain of salt. Game of Thrones is going to require one more grain. HBO has been very transparent in discussing the budget for the show – perhaps because it’s such an easy bragging point. From season 3 or 4 on, when it was clear that Thrones was a phenomenon, HBO has spared no expensive. The problem is we don’t know the full budget for season 7 yet. We do know that season 6’s budget was $100 for 10 episodes, which makes for a respectable $10 million per episode. If season 7’s budget remained the same, that would make an even more impressive $14.25 million per episode.
5. Band of Brothers – $12.5 million per episode
You know how sometimes you see a big budget movie and come out wondering “where did all the money go?” Band of Brothers is the opposite of that. HBO’s World War II collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks cost a total of $125 million over 10 episodes ($12.5 million per episode). If you’ve ever watched Band of Brothers, that $125 million seems downright thrifty. This is an impossibly epic and definitive war series. The cast is expansive, everything is period-accurate and the action is legitimately terrifying. This is truly the first step in TV’s capacity to create a cinematic spectacle.
4. E.R. – $13 million per episode
Man, NBC must have really been hurting in the late ‘90s/early’00s. Those cast salaries will kill you quicker than a bullet. E.R., yes E.R. has the record for most expensive network TV show ever and most of it comes down to cast expenses yet again. E.R. also presented an interesting circumstance that is unlikely to ever happen again. When NBC bought the show from the studio that produced it, Warner Brothers, it was only for 5 seasons. Then E.R. became a “free agent” and also just happened to be the most watched scripted show on television. Oh, and the guy who helped produce E.R. at Warner Brothers was Les Moonves – who by 1998 was the head of CBS, leading to an honest-to-goodness bidding war between NBC and CBS. E.R.’s popularity along with those strange contractual circumstances led to a $286 million deal for 22 episodes.
3. The Crown – $13 million per episode
With The Crown, Netflix’s free-spending ways finally paid off. The Crown isn’t the most popular show on television and it certainly doesn’t have Game of Thrones-level appeal but it is legitimately good and well-liked. It also presents Netflix with its greatest chance to take home Golden Globes and Emmys for the foreseeable future. Netflix is almost certainly willing to pay $130 million for 10 episodes for that. Where does that $130 million go? Absolutely wherever the show wants it. This includes a recreation of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress that cost $35,000.
2. The Get Down – $16 million per episode
Netflix has four TV shows in total on this list. One was a success, one was a modest success and the other two were disasters. The Get Down is one of the aforementioned disasters. Netflix always knew that filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s vision of a hip hop period drama would be expensive. They were anticipating spending $120 million total for 12 episodes. That $11 million per episode mark would have been Netflix’s second most expensive show ever after The Crown. But then the budget kind of just got away from Luhrmann and Netflix. Getting exclusive rights to music is more expensive than one would think and before anyone knew it The Get Down had ballooned to around $200 million total. To add insult to injury, The Get Down was then poorly received and canceled after one season.
1. The Pacific – $20 million per episode
Emboldend by their success with Band of Brothers, HBO invited Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks back for another bite of the World War II apple with The Pacific. Where Band of Brothers focused on the Army’s Easy Company and their experiences in Europe post D-Day, The Pacific would follow a smaller group as they island-hopped around the pacific theater of World War II. Despite the somewhat smaller scale, The Pacific had a generous $200 million budget for 10 episodes and used the extra dough to shoot on-scene and invest more into VFX work. The result was another unambiguous win for HBO and the most expensive per episode entity to ever appear on television…until Spielberg and Hanks go for part three.