They don’t have the dollar magnitude of their movie counterparts. Still, the most expensive TV shows can cost studios an arm and a leg and the possibility of failure to win the audience’s favor sends shiver down the big bosses’ spines. Many turned in respectable returns for the networks, but some did flop, which is probably their only claim to fame.
Our list is dominated by drama series, with an animated theme, a reality show and a sitcom thrown in for variety. Here are ten of the most expensive TV shows (calculated with cost per episode) ever:
The Australian TV series had a successful run between 2007 and 2011 for a whole five seasons featuring the fictional Royal Australian patrol boat and its crew. The story revolves around legal issues faced by the Australian navy in its waters, including illegal fishing, asylum seekers and criminal engagements. Its first episode ranked as the second most popular series premiere in Australian TV history with two million viewers glued to the screen during the show’s initial telecast. Navy boat rentals, on-location logistics, and a large crew of actors and support easily racked up the cost to produce one Sea Patrol episode to 1 million dollars.
It’s considered by many as one of the most expensive TV series flops of all-time. The story about a family of lions with a Las Vegas show for a living didn’t just click with the viewers. The series lasted for just one season from August 2004 to May 2005 before DreamWorks gave it the axe. Father of the Pride was part of a CGI animated films trend in primetime TV back then. Critics had a field day churning out the reasons for the dismal performance, including: the show being promoted as just a dessert to DreamWorks’ big project at that time, Shrek and Shrek 2; or that it’s a close semblance to South Park in story and dialogue treatment. An aggressive promotional campaign during the 2004 Summer Olympics and the nine-month CGI production turnaround were some of the top costs for the show.
One of the longest running TV drama series, ER had churned out 331 episodes since it introduced the world to George Clooney’s charm. Its creator, Michael Crichton, had the ER plot in his head since his medical residency days in the seventies, but it was only after collaborating with Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park that the story was fleshed out. The original set was filmed in an abandoned L.A. hospital. Over time, the original cast including Clooney pursued different paths, but the show kept on earning ratings. It went to win 22 of its 124 Emmy Awards nominations. As they became popular, the cast, including Clooney, demanded a bigger slice off the production budget which contributed to increased production costs.
Ever notice Simon Cowell being a little more edgy in X Factor than in American Idol? He created X following his success, or his newfound fame, mainly thanks to his sharp commentaries in Idol. To make the show a little different, the X features aspiring solo and group music artists. The logistics of pulling together raw talents across the country aside, the major costs for the reality TV show were the celebrity judges’ talent fees. Britney Spears, Paula Abdul and Demi Lovato were some of the judges that helped America get its new batch of singing talents, with a flair for drama to boot.
No, it’s not a remake of the seventies childish adventure show, Land of the Lost, although it probably had inspired British writer Kelly Marcel, whose idea in turn was the basis for Terra Nova. Both series feature a family that struggles to survive in a place inhabited by dinosaurs, which is about the only similarity between the two shows. Terra follows a family that left a dying future earth to settle in past earth along with a handful of pioneer settlers. The series ran for one season, from September to December of 2011. Fox didn’t give specific reasons for the cancellation even as fans clamored for a second serving. One episode took up to nine days of shooting, but what really drove up costs were the six weeks of post-production, double the average for a TV show. Maybe Fox had second thoughts?
The series set off a resurgent trend in the early 2000s towards sci-fi plots reminiscent of Buck Rogers and Space 1999 mixed with a Twilight Zone flavor. The series produced 121 episodes or six seasons. It was so popular that it inspired a new batch of similar thematic series including Flashforward and The Event. In its first season alone, Lost got an average 15.69 million viewers per episode. Likewise, critics have often ranked the series among the top ten TV series of all time. Remaking a crashed jetliner and transporting it to Hawaii where the shoot was done and hosting a large acting cast (70 original survivors) chewed a big chunk off the show’s budget.
The western is back and gone again. Deadwood had a critically acclaimed successful three seasons from March 2004 to August 2006. The plot took us back to the nineteenth-century Dakota Territory and weaved together fictional and historical figures like Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The series had an expansive set and large ensemble of actors that racked up production costs. Despite garnering ratings, studio bosses decided to end the series, planning for a two-part movie instead. The film project, however, never pushed through. Fans are still hoping that the Deadwood movie idea shows some sign of life.
It has the making of a fully fledged film. With 275 actors, an elaborate medieval set, weaponry and costumes, and a pan-European on-location shooting sites, such as in Croatia, Ireland and Malta, Game of Thrones easily made it to the top three most expensive TV series ever. The show is based on George R.R. Martin’s fantasy trilogy; it has earned a cult across countries, prompting HBO to renew the season for the sixth time.
The tale of Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo is told with the Roman Empire as backdrop. Massive sets, elaborate costumes and extensive CGI use made Rome the most expensive TV production ever, barring talent fees. For two seasons—2005 and 2007—Rome regaled us with the detailed life, politics and challenges to one’s survival in the Roman times. The show gained huge ratings, which caused the studio bosses to talk about a movie version in 2008. We’re still waiting for the rise of Rome once more.
The riot group of city buddies Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross carried the day, or to be exact, ten years of successful Friends season runs (and until now, reruns) from September 1994 to May 2004. It’s a critical darling, a resounding commercial success, and a cultural icon of its time. A simple studio set that shifts back and forth in a coffee shop, the characters’ rooms and the occasional other interior scenes and perhaps a three-camera setup couldn’t make Friends any more expensive than regular sitcoms.
As the cast became famous and the pillars of the series, they started demanding higher fees. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer actually became close friends in real life. Starting from season three, they agreed to negotiate a collective salary scale with the studio, ensuring each of them got the same pay. Starting at $75,000 per episode, the scale shot up to one million dollars per member per season finale episode. They also won a royalty arrangement for Friends reruns. Not that the NBC was being friendly, the cast simply had that rare chemistry that shot ratings off the mark.
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