The 20 Most Expensive TV Shows Ever Made – And How They Splashed The Cash

Recent years have seen the rise of the TV blockbuster — small-screen dramas with big-screen budgets. But can you name the 20 most expensive series ever made? Here’s a definitive run-down of the TV spectacles that saw producers roll out the big bucks like never before. It may have begun in the 1990s, but things just keep on getting more expensive — and not all these productions are sci-fi spectaculars or fantasy epics.

20. Boardwalk Empire — $5.2 million per episode

No one can ever accuse HBO of not backing their hunches. When the network smells a hit, it goes all in, and that was certainly the case with period gangster series Boardwalk Empire, which boasted Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald and Michael Shannon among its stars. That’s a lot of pretty hefty salaries for a start.

Unsurprisingly, another large part of the Boardwalk Empire budget went on the elaborate sets and costumes which faithfully recreated early 20th century Atlantic City. The boardwalk itself was said to have cost a cool $2 million. And in a real statement of intent, HBO dropped a stunning $18 million just on the 2011 pilot — which was directed by Martin Scorsese.

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19. Frasier — $5.2 million per episode

The Seattle-set sitcom Frasier is one of the best loved series of all time, featuring the eponymous snobby psychiatrist and his dysfunctional family. Frasier was originally a supporting character in the popular series Cheers, but it wasn’t long before he became a standalone star thanks to his misadventures in his home city after leaving Boston.

But how did a series that was made mostly in the studio run to a rumored cost of $5.2 million per episode at its height? Well, you can thank the cast for that not insignificant expense. Star of the show Kelsey Grammar was reported to be securing a staggering $1.2 million per episode. Still, it was worth it.

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18. Altered Carbon — $7 million per episode

Streaming service Netflix love a big-budget series. One such example is 2018’s Altered Carbon which reportedly ran to an eye-popping $7 million per episode production cost. The show has subsequently secured nominations for two Primetime Emmy Awards, including in the Outstanding Special Visual Effects category.

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If you watch only a couple of minutes of Altered Carbon it’s clear where most of the production budget went. While the actors may not be Hollywood A-listers, most of the dollars have been spent on the effects — hence that Emmy nod. But it seems that fact — and the show’s viewing figures — were not enough: the show was cancelled after two seasons.

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17. Camelot — $7 million per episode

Historical epics are notoriously expensive. How else you can create an authentic version of the past if not by spending eye-watering amounts of money on sets and costumes? One such example is the series Camelot, which is supposed to have cost a whopping $7 million per episode. Creating the mythical world of King Arthur and his band of legendary knights is not a cheap business, after all.

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Despite the enduring popularity of the Arthurian legend, Camelot wasn’t a success for the Starz network. In fact, the show was pulled after one season in 2011. Debuting around the same time as the far superior Game of Thrones may have just done for this particular project and its actors. It was that cast — including established Hollywood stars Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green — that ate up a fair chunk of the production budget.

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16. The Alienist: Angel of Darkness — $7.5 million per episode

One of the challenges in producing a modern-day television spectacle is that there are just so many competing parties. Long gone are the days of limited networks and channels; these days audiences have a feast of options. TNT decided to take a big-budget gamble in 2018 with The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, a rather sinister period drama.

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It’s not hard to see why the adaptation of Caleb Carr’s novel cost so much to produce. An all-star cast including Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning, along with the fact that the production designers were tasked with recreating 19th century Manhattan, took care of most of the budget.

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15. Sense8 — $9 million per episode

The Wachowskis are no strangers to producing science fiction big-budget epics. The writers and directors are the creators of the incredible Matrix series of films which were groundbreaking in terms of special effects as well as subject matter. Sense8 was a small-screen sci-fi series in the same vein.

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But how did Sense8 run to a jaw-dropping cost of $9 million per episode? Reports are that the Wachowskis insisted on filming each of the nine standalone episodes on location in different cities. That meant expensive filming permits which soon swallowed up the series’ extensive budget. The end result was a series with a cult following, but one that never generated quite enough popular appeal to see it recommissioned by Netflix executives.

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14. The Big Bang Theory — $9 million per episode

There is little doubt that The Big Bang Theory picked up the baton from Friends in terms of hugely popular but also hugely expensive TV sitcoms. Although geekier than its predecessor, CBS’s smash has certainly charmed audiences much as Friends and Frasier did, and has made household names out of its stars.  

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Another similarity to Friends is the way that star salaries were to thank for escalating production costs on the series. The seven main actors were said to be earning between $750,000 and $1 million per episode towards the end of the show’s 12th season before it ended in 2019. Add in the numerous celebrity guest stars and you’ve got one huge bill for just 25 minutes of TV.

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13. Marco Polo — $9 million per episode

Those historical epics sure are popular with TV executives, aren’t they? Marco Polo has to go down as one of the biggest TV flops of all time when you consider the money spent on producing it, and the slight impression it made on viewers. Netflix reportedly lavished $90 million on the show’s first season of 10 episodes in 2014. Remarkably, the streaming service then did the same thing again with the second season.

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But it was two seasons and out for this particular period piece. It just wasn’t pulling in the viewers. In terms of legacy, Marco Polo will be best remembered as the production that left the streaming giant $200 million in the hole. Almost an achievement to rival those of Marco himself.

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12. Rome — over $9 million per episode

If you like your series to be large in scope and epic in nature then it doesn’t get much better than HBO’s Rome. If you were wondering how each episode ran to a reported $9 million, it’s not an easy job recreating large swathes of the Italian capital so it looked as it did two millennia ago. 

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Rome was pretty popular when it debuted in 2005. Certainly the critics loved it, and so did audiences, especially for the first season of the show’s run. Yet it was curtains for the series after season two. HBO just couldn’t justify the cost anymore. And at that amount, it’s hard to argue with the decision.

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11. Friends — $10 million per episode

It just had to be here, didn’t it? It is arguably the series that reestablished TV as the number one entertainment format. It catapulted its actors to stardom and it became a cultural touchpoint that is amazingly still relevant more than 25 years after the series was first broadcast.

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But how on earth did Friends end up costing a staggering 10 million bucks for 25 minutes of TV? By the time the show’s 10th and final series came around, the show’s six main stars  — Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer  — were pocketing a staggering $1 million each. No wonder those same stars were crying real tears when the show ended in 2004.

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10. The Get Down — $11 million per episode

Just because you throw a lot of money at something, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. It doesn’t even matter if you’re one of the world’s most successful movie directors whose personal passion is to bring the story to the screen. And such was the case with Baz Luhrmann and his ‘70s-set New York musical series The Get Down.

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Like many big-budget bonanzas, plenty of The Get Down’s budget went on its lavish production. However, rather uniquely, another substantial wedge of that same budget went on the right to play the classic R&B tunes that peppered each episode. Unfortunately, the soul tribute didn’t work out — Netflix pulled it after one season.

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9. Band of Brothers — $12.5 million per episode

TV doesn’t get much more epic than HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers. Following the men of Easy Company’s battles through Europe after D-Day, the series was produced by — among others – Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. The result was a pretty breathtaking trip through the horrors of World War II.

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Running to $12.5 million per episode back in 2001 was quite an achievement, even for such a lavish miniseries. But Band of Brothers had a sweeping cast and action sequences that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Saving Private Ryan. And then, of course, there was the construction of sets that were to give a realistic recreation of war-torn Europe.

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8. ER — $13 million per episode

When NBC started running this medical drama in 1994, nobody could have foreseen what a monster hit it would become. ER made a megastar out of George Clooney, but like Friends it also became a cultural talking point. Offices around the world were filled with obsessed workers eagerly discussing characters and plots.

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The brainchild of writer Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, ER didn’t start out with an eye-popping budget. But as the shows popularity grew, so did that of the main stars such as Clooney, Noah Wyle and Anthony Edwards as well as many more besides. The cost of keeping that cast together alone saw the original production budget rise to $13 million an episode.

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7. The Crown — $13 million per episode

The word “lavish” is often used when it comes to costly TV series — and with good reason. Netflix’s The Crown is the definitively very definition of lavish. This is perfectly fitting as its subject is the British Royal Family and its head, the most famous monarch on the planet, Queen Elizabeth II of England.

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The Crown covers a period of more than half a century. And its commitment to recreating the times it portrays is admirable. But $13 million an episode is an awful lot of dough, so where did it all go? Well, when you consider that producers reportedly dropped $35,000 simply on recreating the Queen’s wedding dress for the first episode, the more pertinent question to ask is probably how did it ‘only’ cost that much.

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6. The Morning Show — $15 million per episode

When major players start to get involved in the production of TV shows, you can guarantee the amounts invested will be astronomical. And so it is with tech giants Apple and their Apple TV+ service. Reports claim $6 billion has been set aside for the making of series and movies just for the streaming service. The Morning Show is an early example of how they set out to realize that ambition.

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But how can a series about a morning television show run to a production budget of a reported $15 million per episode? Well, consider the fact that two of the main actors — Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — are rumored to be pocketing $2 million each per episode. Even a mega budget like that can be eaten up pretty quickly.

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5. See — $15 million per episode

Apple made a real statement of intent about their Apple TV+ streaming service with the release of See in 2019. A show set in a dystopian future where the human race has lost the sense of sight and starring Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa, it’s pretty easy to see how the series budget soon escalated to jaw-dropping heights.

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Star salaries certainly contributed to the huge budget of See. But the visual effects used in the form of CGI and large-scale set-pieces also took care of a fair chunk of the finances too. The end result is a stunning example of modern TV: Lavish, expansive in scope — and clearly expensive.

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4. The Mandalorian — $15 million per episode

An ambitious piece of sci-fi requires a pretty hefty budget. As well as set designs you’ve got to have cutting edge special effects and CGI too. But when that series is part of the Star Wars universe, you just know you can double the figure you initially thought of. And so it is with The Mandalorian.

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The Mandalorian is standalone in that its not connected directly to any of the previous Star Wars movies. That fact seemed to free it up slightly in terms of plot and budget possibilities, and critics and audiences alike have received it positively. But when a Baby Yoda puppet alone costs $2 million, you can see how the budget mounts up.

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3. Game of Thrones — $15 million per episode

Hands up if you were expecting to find Game of Thrones near the top of this list? Of course you were right to think that: no TV series with the sheer scale of this literary adaption could be done on the cheap. And in the case of this epic fantasy drama, it just got more and more expensive as the series progressed.

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When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, its large cast and range of shooting locations and CGI were pricey enough. But by the time it got to the last season in 2019, that series budget of about $100 million was covering only six episodes as opposed to 10. You do the math.

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2. The Pacific – $20 million per episode

In 2011, nine years after their epic Band of Brothers, HBO turned its attention to the war on the other side of the world. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were back once again as producers, and now the budget was even bigger. The result is arguably one of the most epic spectacles of combat ever committed any screen.

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The original production budget for the World War II drama was initially set at $100 million, but in its dedication to producing some of the most realistic battle scenes ever seen, costs spiraled. The epic cast, location fees and special effects saw The Pacific double its budget over the course of 10 episodes.

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1. Disney+ Marvel shows — $25 million per episode

It really shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the most expensive TV shows of all feature superheroes. Nor should it be a massive shock to discover both Disney and Marvel are the producers with the deep pockets. After all, we are talking about two of the most iconic names in the entertainment industry.

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After the staggering success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spin-offs on the small screen made logical sense. And so Disney+ greenlit WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. These original shows featuring some of Marvel’s best-loved characters will surely prove a big hit with fans but at what cost?

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