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25 of the most expensive TV series of all time

  • 25 of the most expensive TV series of all time

    Binging on television shows is one of the great new American pastimes. TV watching peaked in 2010, with the average household watching more than eight hours and 55 minutes per day, according to Nielsen data. As of 2019, households spent closer to seven hours and 50 minutes watching television each day—but that doesn't take into account streaming services. Netflix boasts more than 60 million subscribers in the U.S. alone, while Amazon and Hulu are collecting millions of viewers each year, and more services are being introduced regularly. 

    TV is a numbers game in more ways than one. Creating intricate sets, using new visual effects, and paying famous actors make television an expensive enterprise. Some of the biggest numbers in show budgets are on actors' paychecks: In the 1990s, well-known stars like Kelsey Grammer were getting $1.6 million for each episode while Jennifer Aniston and her five "Friends" raked in up to $1 million per episode. In the final season of HBO's "Game of Thrones," several of its stars made $500,000 per episode, revealing paying talent top dollar has not changed.

    "Band of Brothers" was among the first big-budget shows not on major network television when it began its run on HBO in the late 1990s with an almost unheard of budget of $12 million per episode. Having Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg attached to the project pushed HBO into funding it. The network has since spent even more on making shows like "The Pacific" and "Game of Thrones."

    To find out the 25 most expensive TV series of all time, Stacker conducted independent research via news reports and entertainment outlets and ranked the shows by budget. Ties were not broken when shows shared the same budget. Read on to discover which shows cross the $10 million-per-episode budget threshold—and which takes the cake, with a budget of a whopping $21.7 million per episode.

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  • #24. House of Cards (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $4.5 million
    - On air: 2013-2018
    - Network: Netflix

    Netflix's “House of Cards,” the political thriller starring Hollywood powerhouses Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, has dozens of Golden Globe and Emmy awards to show for the six-season series that aired between 2013 and 2018. In October 2017, Spacey came under fire for sexual misconduct, which led to his dismissal from the show and Netflix's decision to end it after the sixth season.

  • #24. Deadwood (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $4.5 million
    - On air: 2004-2006
    - Network: HBO

    Winner of eight Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe Award, HBO's American Western crime drama series has been called the best drama television show to have ever been made. That said, keeping up with creator David Milch's last-minute rewrites (reportedly sometimes warm in actors' hands) and constant set changes proved far too costly. While “Deadwood” started as an inexpensive production, numerous retakes and dwindling viewership rendered the show unaffordable.

  • #22. The Tick (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $5 million
    - On air: 2017-2019
    - Network: Amazon Prime

    A bizarre, blue science-fiction superhero (Peter Serafinowicz) with a sidekick accountant was once a $5 million-per-episode idea. But after just two seasons, Amazon canceled "The Tick," which reportedly had expensive visual effects and pricey New York City shooting locations. Series creator Ben Edlund tweeted in June 2019 that despite the search for a substitute streaming service to pick up the half-hour show, he couldn't find a new home in today's market. 

  • #22. Boardwalk Empire (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $5 million
    - On air: 2010-2014
    - Network: HBO

    Each episode of the HBO hit took 15 days to film at $5 million a pop, which is double the cost of a usual network series. The pilot for the Prohibition-era production that centers around Enoch Malachi "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi) reportedly cost $18 million to make. Eventually, costs declined as later episodes could reuse existing props, costumes, and sets.

  • #21. Frasier

    - Budget per episode: $5.2 million
    - On air: 1993-2004
    - Network: NBC

    The “Cheers” spin-off about a snobby Seattle radio-psychiatrist Frasier Crane, which paid star Kelsey Grammer $1.6 million an episode from 2001 to 2004, became too expensive to maintain. The set design for the show cost $500,000, with up to $15,000 spent recreating a Coco Chanel couch and thousands more on the eye-sore recliner Frasier's father, actor John Mahoney, sat in for 11 seasons.

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  • #20. The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story

    - Budget per episode: $6.5 million
    - On air: 2016
    - Network: FX

    The true-crime series based on Jeffrey Toobin's book portrayed the O.J. Simpson's notorious Hollywood murder trial. The show featured a top-shelf cast of Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta, who cost millions to employ for the 10-episode drama. Travolta, who returned to television after almost four decades to play lawyer Robert Shapiro, was also accompanied by high-paid actress Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark.

  • #17. Altered Carbon (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $7 million
    - On air: 2018-present
    - Network: Netflix

    Creating a 25th-century plot starring Joel Kinnaman and hiring “Game of Thrones” director Miguel Sapochnik to direct are rumored to have cost $70 million for the initial 10-episode series. "Altered Carbon's" second season released only eight episodes, most of which were shorter than the first season episodes. It's still up in the air whether Netflix will renew the show for a third season. 

     

  • #17. Stranger Things (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $7 million
    - On air: 2016-present
    - Network: Netflix

    Making the first season of sci-fi horror series “Stranger Things,” written by the Duffer brothers, to look like a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie was costly. Because of the series' limited budget, the show's creators had to switch up their original ideas, which included changing the original idea for a coastal town setting to a minimalist Midwest location. The series' fourth season is currently in production with a release date yet to be announced. 

  • #17. Camelot (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $7 million
    - On air: 2011
    - Network: Starz

    It wasn't the cost of costumes and sets of Arthurian icon “Camelot” that shut the show down after one season; it was significant production challenges. Ironically, Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green, and Jamie Campbell Bower were producing ratings and viewership almost as high at the series' end as at its beginning. "Camelot" struggled from its inception because of a crowded cable landscape.

  • #15. The Alienist (tie)

    - Budget per episode: $7.5 million
    - On air: 2018
    - Network: TNT

    Childhood star Dakota Fanning is the face of “The Alienist,” TNT's most expensive 10-episode series in its 30-year history. With the series, centered on a pair of New York City investigators in the 1890s hunting a child killer, the network succeeded where a major Hollywood studio failed. In 1996, Paramount invested millions into a film version the production house never finished.

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