Some television shows have relatively small production budgets, but others’ are larger than life. Composed of mega-star casts, lavish production sites, intricate costume design, a massive crew or sometimes all of the above, certain TV shows aren’t cheap to create.
Networks invest a lot of cash in these shows, so their success is paramount. Take a look at the 10 most expensive TV shows to produce, past and present. And find out how much the highest-paid TV casts get paid.
1. ‘Game of Thrones’
“Game of Thrones” filming has taken place all over Europe, including Ireland, Iceland, Malta, Croatia and Spain. Season seven of the hit HBO show had a studio in Belfast, Ireland, but many scenes were filmed on location in historic spots like Castillo de Almodovar — aka Highgarden — in Andalusia, Spain.
Each episode of season six cost upwards of $10 million to produce, according to Entertainment Weekly. The magazine revealed the “Battle of the Bastards” episode alone required 600 crew members, 500 extras and 25 shooting days.
Season seven of “Game of Thrones” was likely even more expensive, because stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau earned a salary of approximately $2.5 million per episode, according to the Daily Express — up from their previous per-episode rates of $500,000, according to Variety.
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It’s been off the air since 2004, but “Friends” is still one of the most popular shows of all-time — and NBC paid dearly for it. In 2002, stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer banded together to negotiate a salary of $1 million each for seasons nine and 10 of the TV series, according to The New York Times. The then-record-breaking cast salaries added up to $6 million per episode, which composed the bulk of the show’s final production budget of $7 million per episode — and they're still raking in millions from reruns.
3. ‘Boardwalk Empire’
Following a five-season run, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” went off the air in 2014, but the $18 million cost of the show’s 2010 pilot episode is still being talked about. Preparations for this Prohibition-era drama involved constructing a 1920s-style, 300-foot boardwalk.
When the cost of the set and other expenses were broken down over all 12 episodes in the TV series’ first season, expenses averaged $5 million per episode. The bulk of the budget covered costs like the creation of period costumes, a plethora of extras and the prep work required to transform filming locations into 1920s settings.
Unlike “Game of Thrones,” actor salaries only accounted for a small portion of the budget. In fact, leading man Steve Buscemi reportedly earned just $75,000 per episode, according to Celebrity Net Worth.
4. ‘The Big Bang Theory’
Nerdtastic sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” has been gracing the CBS TV lineup since 2007. It has a budget of nearly $10 million per episode, with more than half used for cast salaries, according to a 2017 Forbes report.
The series’ five original stars Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar had been earning $1 million per episode since 2014, according to People. They took, however, a $100,000 per episode pay cut for seasons 11 and 12, to make room in the budget to give co-stars Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch a raise, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The five original stars now earn $900,000 each per episode and Bialik and Rauch get $500,000 each per episode, according to a 2017 Variety report.
In 1999, “ER” became the most expensive drama in television history, when production costs reached $13 million per episode, according to the New York Post --and cast salaries comprised much of those production costs.
Noah Wyle and Anthony Edwards earned $400,000 per episode in 1999, according to Page Six. That same year, Eriq La Salle landed a three-year, $27 million contract with the show — which Variety noted would have averaged out to $410,000 per episode — but part of the pay was retroactive.
The long-running NBC medical drama debuted in 1994 and stayed on the air until 2009. During its tenure, several major stars were part of the cast, including George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Maura Tierney.
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6. ‘The Crown’
A Netflix original series, “The Crown” debuted in 2016 and was said to be the most expensive TV series ever made with a rumored budget of $156 million for two seasons. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, creator Peter Morgan disputed this claim and revealed the two-season budget was actually $100 million.
Season one consisted of 10 episodes and season two will follow suit, bringing the show’s per-episode cost to $5 million, which is still notably pricey. Sky-high production costs for the drama that chronicles the rise of Queen Elizabeth II are likely due to expenses like period costumes and lavish sets as opposed to cast salaries, because star Claire Foy earns just $40,000 per episode, according to Variety.
7. ‘The Get Down’
Created by Stephen Adly Guirgis and Baz Luhrmann and starring Justice Smith, Jimmy Smits and Jaden Smith, Vanity Fair cited “The Get Down” as Netflix’s most expensive series ever in 2016. Originally slated for 13 episodes, season one culminated in just 11, with a total price tag of almost $200 million, according to Deadline.
The TV show went way over budget because $11 million was originally allocated for each episode, according to Deadline. Because only 11 episodes were made, final production costs factored out to approximately $18 million per episode.
Production costs included fees to obtain the worldwide rights to intellectual property the show used, a number of filming shutdowns, staffing changes and script rewrites, according to Deadline. “The Get Down” was canceled in May 2017.
Before it was home to “Game of Thrones,” HBO had “Rome.” The TV series was canceled in 2007 — before its second season even aired — due to its enormous production costs, according to Entertainment Weekly. A period drama set in the final days of the Roman Republic, the show was filmed just outside Rome, with a per-episode cost at $6 to $10 million, according to Forbes.
In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, creator Bruno Heller noted “Rome” was HBO’s first big-budget period drama filmed abroad. He called it a learning experience for the network and said many of its directors and producers later moved on to “Game of Thrones.”
9. ‘Marco Polo’
Netflix canceled “Marco Polo” after just two seasons, but the drama lives on as one of the company’s most expensive TV series ever. Produced by The Weinstein Co., Netflix paid $90 million for the first 10 episodes, according to The New York Times.
The show’s two-season run cost the company $200 million in losses, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The root of its roughly $9 million per episode budget wasn’t revealed, but costumes and sets for the period drama based in 13th century Mongolia likely added up fast.
A longtime NBC hit, “Frasier” entertained viewers from 1993 to 2004. By the time the sitcom was canceled in 2004, the network was paying $5.2 million per episode for it, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Cast salaries composed most of the television show’s budget and Kelsey Grammer’s salary had risen to $1.6 million per episode, making him the highest-paid TV actor at the time, according to People, which, flash forward — didn’t help him in his divorce. The magazine listed costar David Hyde Pierce’s salary at $750,000 to $1 million per episode and Jane Leeves’s at nearly $400,000 per episode.