Throughout the years, a multitude of amazing television shows have graced the airways. While some have simply entertained a niche fan base, others have turned into cult classics syndicated for mega-money.
More than just great television, these shows have the ability to reach a broad audience that spans generations. Seemingly timeless, these beloved series might never go out of style.
In fact, some are still going strong in syndication decades after their series finale. However, others are so popular, they’re simultaneously airing new episodes, while already in syndication.
When television shows reach this level of popularity, many top-billed members of the cast and crew cash in for years to come. Of course, networks also benefit from syndication, as they’re able to continue profiting from shows that no longer require a production budget.
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Ready to find out if some of your favorite shows made the list? Here’s a look at 10 of the most profitable TV shows of all time.
A major hit for ABC, “Modern Family” debuted in 2009 and ran for 11 seasons. Its 2020 series finale drew in a seriously impressive 7.4 million viewers, according to Variety, highlighting the sitcom’s overwhelming popularity.
The show’s average ad revenue held steady between $224,000 to nearly $240,000 per 30-second spot from its 2014-15 season through its 2017-18 season, according to Statista. This number dropped to $164,767 per 30-second spot during its 2018-19 season and $148,228 in its 2019-20 season.
In a 2010 deal, USA Network purchased syndication rights for “Modern Family,” valued at $1.5 million per episode, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Hulu and NBCUniversal’s Peacock announced plans to share streaming rights for all 250 episodes of the sitcom in 2021.
When “Friends” ended its 10-season run in 2004, 52.5 million viewers tuned in to NBC to watch the last episode — the fourth-largest audience in history for a finale, according to The New York Times. Still going strong, when “Friends: The Reunion” aired on HBO Max in 2021, 29% of U.S. streaming households tuned in the first day, according to Variety.
In total, the show has garnered more than $1.4 billion for its stars and creators since its 1994 debut, according to Forbes. This includes nearly $816 million in pretax earnings for its six stars — approximately $136 million each.
The show’s creators — David Crane and Marta Kaufman — and its co-executive producer — Kevin Bright — have also accumulated a combined total of at least $550 million, according to Forbes. In total, “Friends” has generated an estimated $4.8 billion for Warner Bros — the show’s production company — from multiple syndication and streaming deals.
‘The Big Bang Theory’
CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” debuted in 2007 and lasted 12 seasons. Even during its final season, the show managed to draw in an average of 17.31 million people per episode –the lowest viewership since its fifth season — according to Statista.
The show was such a hit that the network demanded $1.2 million to $1.5 million for a 30-second ad spot during its 2019 series finale, according to Variety. However, this was a special rate for its final show, as the average rate for a 30-second ad spot was an estimated $258,500 during its 12th season.
In a 2019 multibillion-dollar deal, HBO Max landed exclusive domestic streaming rights to “The Big Bang Theory,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The show also has a syndication deal with TBS through 2028.
Beloved sitcom “Cheers” debuted in 1982 and ran for 11 seasons. When its final episode aired in 1993, 80.4 million people tuned in to watch — the second-largest audience for a finale in television history, according to The New York Times.
The 200th episode of “Cheers” was the highest-rated primetime show of 1990, as nearly 27.5 million homes tuned in, according to the Associated Press. In 1991, Paramount estimated that NBC earned an average of $330,000 per 30-second ad spot during the show — $2.6 million per episode — according to the Los Angeles Times.
On air from 1993-2004, “Frasier” was a seriously successful spin-off of “Cheers.” By 2005, the show grossed more than $1.5 billion in revenues — including nearly $830 million in NBC network licensing fees — according to a 2005 lawsuit filed against Paramount Pictures.
In 2004, Lifetime Television acquired exclusive cable-syndication rights to the hit series. Netflix paid $200 million for two years of non-exclusive streaming rights to several CBS shows in 2011 — including “Frasier” — but no longer retains the rights, according to Deadline.
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One of the most successful shows in television history, “Seinfeld” premiered in 1989 and ran for nine seasons on NBC. By 2014, the series had generated $3.1 billion since entering syndication in 1995, according to Vulture.
When its final episode aired in 1998, 76.3 million people tuned in to watch — the third-largest audience for a finale in television history, according to The New York Times. During the finale, NBC scored $2 million per 30-second ad spot, according to AdAge.
In 2019, Viacom scored syndication rights to “Seinfeld.” Terms of the deal weren’t publicly disclosed but were thought to be around $200,000-$250,000 per episode, according to Deadline.
‘Everybody Loves Raymond’
From 1996-2005, “Everybody Loves Raymond” was one of the most popular shows on CBS. An impressive 32.9 million people tuned in to watch the finale, allowing the network to command $1.22 million per 30-second ad spot, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Details on the show’s current earnings haven’t been made public, but in 2003, People reported syndication fees were eventually expected to reach $1 billion. Playing the role of the main character paid off big time for Ray Romano, who was earning $1.8 million per episode, plus a cut of syndication fees by the end of the series.
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Going strong since 1989, “The Simpsons” is the longest-running animated sitcom in television history. A 30-second ad spot during the show’s 2020-21 season cost approximately $126,000, according to Statista.
In 2013, Fox’s Twentieth Century Fox TV and Twentieth TV sold first-ever syndication rights and VOD sale of the series to FX Networks’ FXX outlet for more than $750 million, according to Variety. “The Simpsons” has been renewed for Seasons 33 and 34, taking the show to 2023.
In 2005, “Grey’s Anatomy” debuted on ABC and it has served as a megahit for the network ever since. The show was renewed for its 18th season in 2021.
Lifetime TV purchased syndication rights to “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2006. The network paid an estimated $1.2 million per episode, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
During its 16th season, the show was ABC’s top program in total viewers — 15.7 million — with 35 days of delayed viewing across all platforms, according to Deadline. During that season, the network charged $186,000 per 30-second ad spot, according to Forbes.
‘Two and a Half Men’
In 2003, “Two and a Half Men” debuted on CBS. The show lasted 12 seasons — including swapping Charlie Sheen for Ashton Kutcher as the main character — through 2015.
Sheen caused “Two and a Half Men” to shut down temporarily in 2011, which could’ve cost up to $250 million in domestic syndication revenue for producer Warner Bros. Television, along with millions in lost advertising revenue for the network, according to The Hollywood Reporter. At the time, a 30-second ad spot during the show was priced upwards of $200,000 — totaling more than $3 million per episode.
Sheen was ultimately fired in 2011, and Kutcher served as his replacement for the rest of the series.
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