Do you remember when TV shows used to be small, simple productions? Well, “small” is relative. TV productions have always been expensive. But up until recently, their budgets were somewhat reasonable and restrained. These days, there’s almost no limit to how much cash a network is willing to throw at a program, provided it brings in revenue. And as this list of most expensive TV shows exemplifies, there’s plenty of revenue to be made.

(Data courtesy of Statista.)

9. Sense8

Source: Netflix / YouTube

Budget per episode: $9 million

The Netflix sci-fi thriller Sense8 ran for only two seasons before its cancellation in 2017. This decision was likely due to its exorbitant $9 million per episode price tag. Though the series was lauded for its originality and social commentary (hallmarks of all good sci-fi), it never gained the ratings needed to justify its production costs.

8. Rome

Source: HBO / YouTube

Budget per episode: $9 million

HBO would eventually become a driving force in dramatic television, but there were a few missteps along the way. One such misstep was its 2005 fantasy series Rome—or, more accurately, the cancellation of Rome. With a staggering production budget of $9 million per episode and the need for costly international filming, HBO wasn’t willing to keep Rome alive, and it was cancelled before season two even began. Supposedly, HBO executives would later admit this to be a mistake.

7. Marco Polo

Source: Netflix / YouTube

Budget per episode: $9 million

A short-lived Netflix original, Marco Polo is another historical fantasy series that didn’t receive the ratings it needed to keep itself afloat. The series was met with poor reviews, and combined with its expensive production budget, it was a flop in every sense of the word. Insiders report that the series resulted in a $200 million loss for Netflix.  

6. Friends

Source: Ti Ger / YouTube

Budget per episode: $10 million

Friends was an undeniable cultural force throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, running for a decade before its end in 2004. Its production budget was a testament to its popularity; few cable series command such high budgets, especially sitcoms in the old-school 30-minute format. But NBC knew that “Friends” was a force to be reckoned with, and it had an impressive run before its finale (an event unto itself that drew in over 50 million viewers).

5. The Get Down

Source: Netflix / YouTube

Budget per episode: $11 million

The Get Down was Netflix’s attempt at creating a '70s-era period piece that chronicled the rise of hip hop culture in the South Bronx, but the series lasted only one season before cancellation. Insiders tell of the many problems that plagued production, including shooting delays, complicated contract negotiations, and an overall unsupportable budget that made The Get Down one of the most expensive Netflix shows ever made.

4. Band of Brothers

Budget per episode: $12.5 million

Critically-acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers commanded an expensive production budget across its entire run, averaging out to $12.5 million per episode. But unlike others on this list, Brothers was never meant to live as a long-running series, which provided some justification for its cost in HBO’s eyes. And it certainly paid off; the series won numerous Emmy and Golden Globe awards during its run in 2001, and it remains well-regarded to this day.

3. ER

Credit: Surgtech1321 / YouTube

Budget per episode: $13 million

Primetime drama ER needs no introduction. The medical drama ran for over 15 years before its cancellation in 2009, making it the eighth-longest running primetime TV series in U.S. history. Again, to get an idea of how invested NBC was in keeping ER running, all you have to do is look at its budget. Toward the end, each episode of the series cost $13 million to produce.

2. The Crown

Source: Netflix / YouTube

Budget per episode: $13 million

Another Netflix original, The Crown is, without a doubt, the most expensive production that the streaming giant ever put to screen. The story details the lavish, drama-filled reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with each episode commanding a royal price tag of $13 million. And while the series’ future was in doubt after season two finished, it was recently announced that Netflix was renewing it for a third season—and more likely than not, its price tag will only increase as it goes on.

1. Game of Thrones

Source: GameofThrones / YouTube

Budget per episode: $15 million

Last on our list but first in our rankings, there’s Game of Thrones. If you’re reading this, it means you have an internet connection—which means that you already know what Thrones is all about. But from a production standpoint, there was a lot going on behind the scenes that justified its ridiculous price tag:

  • Exotic, international filming strategies that spanned multiple countries at once
  • Cutting-edge computer animated dragons, direwolves, and undead armies
  • The exorbitant salaries of its ensemble cast

During its earlier years, Thrones had a modest budget of $6-7 million per episode, which is pretty standard for HBO productions. But like Daenerys’ dragons, the budget swelled in size throughout the series to reach monstrous proportions by the end. The final season’s episodes cost $15 million to produce each.

The most expensive television shows

Credit: MarioGuti / iStockPhoto

Big budgets can be both a blessing and curse for TV productions. Financial support can propel a series to amazing heights—but just as easily, it can create drastic expectations for ratings and viewership that aren’t always possible to fulfill. It’s a bit of a gamble from a network perspective—but viewers can enjoy the results either way.

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