The name of the game for TV studios is making money, and as the old (not at all entirely accurate) saying goes, "You've got to spend money to make money." Some networks and studios took that saying to the extremes, taking out metaphorical second mortgages and setting budget-pushing records in the process. Those money-oozing decisions seemingly paid out in most cases, though not so much in others.
Here are the 7 most expensive TV series in the 80+ years that the small screen medium has been putting out programming. Try not to have your bank statements and/or past due bills anywhere around while reading, and note that in some cases, the budget reported represents the years at peak costs, and not necessarily the cost for the entire run.
7. Sense8 - Netflix
Cost: $9 million an episode
Lana and Lilly Wachowski were known for spending oodles of money on feature film projects - Speed Racer costs $120 million, and none of it spent on actual speed - so it was no surprise that their first TV venture on the boundary-free Netflix was so very far from cinéma vérité. But unlike the mass amounts of CGI infused into the Wachowskis' Matrix films, Sense8 broke the bank because the production took place almost solely on location, with nine different world metros serving as the settings. The octo-narrative approach may not sit with everyone, but no one can deny how beautiful Sense8 is.
6. Rome - HBO/BBC
Cost: $10 million an episode
If one describes something as "an HBO drama based on Julius Caesar's depictions of the The Great Roman Civil War" out loud, then the soft cha-ching sound of a cash register can be heard just behind whoever is listening. Rome indeed gave off the impression that no expense was spared in creating TV's most realized version of 1st Century B.C.E. Unfortunately, the intricate set design, masterful costumes, and vast ensemble cast was a bit too much for HBO and the BBC to take in the face of those astonishing costs, and the largely well-received Rome did not last beyond its initial two-season order.
5. Game of Thrones
Cost: $10 Million an episode
With a fanbase that forms a vocal wall around most other series on the small screen - mostly to the North - Game of Thrones rarely goes five minutes without giving viewers a scene or sequence that looks like it cost more than a year's worth of earnings for Littlefinger's brothel. The cast is enormous, and though the frequent deaths keep things fresh and potentially low-cost for minor character contracts, the story has only gotten more epic and monumental in scale. So while there will be less episodes in Season 7 and Season 8, expect both to cost as much as previous 10-episode seasons did.
4. Friends - NBC
Cost: $10 million an episode
Remember the season of Friends where the characters found the power rings and combined to become a giant mecha-robot that fought robots in space and stuff? Nope, that never happened, and Friends' very public budgetary issues came not because of pricey settings and scenarios, but the power of its central cast during the contract negotiation process. Had the central six actors all retained their initial per-episode rates, perhaps the costs wouldn't have rocketed higher than New York City apartment buildings, but once they each started pulling in $1 million an episode, it made the "Must See" in "Must See TV" all the more important for NBC.
3. ER - NBC
Cost: $13 million an episode
One of the longest running modern dramas on TV, ER was another source of financial woes for NBC during its "Must See TV" era, although the medical hit started off extremely cost-friendly. But the initial seasons' budget and the final seasons' budget - which were around $2 million an episode and $8 million an episode, respectively - were couch change compared to the spending apex from Seasons 4-9, when ER was hitting on all narrative cylinders and cycling through cast members. There's no possible way it could have lasted its full 15 seasons at $13 million an episode, so it thankfully didn't have to.
2. The Get Down - Netflix
Cost: $120 million a season
Both on paper and in effect, Netflix's Sense8 seemed exorbitant, but there wasn't the same presumed priciness attached to the basic logline for the 1970s drama The Get Down. With Baz Luhrmann running things, however, there was no holding back the lush set designs and cinematography, and it had to set everyone back a pretty penny for all the era-specific props and effects that needed to be achieved. However, The Get Down's biggest wallet-shredding element was the abundance of licensed hip-hop, soul and R&B music. TV music is never cheap. (The Get Down's six installments will be released on April 7, so get your dance shoes ready.)
1. The Crown - Netflix
Cost: $130 million a season
Here we have it, folks. According to Time's Coinage, the most expensive production in TV's long existence comes from the non-surprising home of Netflix, which invested blockbuster film moolah into the 10-episode first season of the historical drama The Crown. A spiritual successor of sorts to creator Peter Morgan's Oscar-winning 2006 drama The Queen, which had a budget of just $15 million, The Crown is another impeccably designed and costumed effort that garnered immediate awards attention. Season 2 is set to debut later this year, and cast members Claire Foy and Matt Smith will presumably be crafted out of diamonds and gold.
So much money went into all of the shows you've seen listed here, and if you head to our midseason premiere schedule, you'll see plenty more that don't cost quite as much.
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Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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