25 of the Most Expensive Television Series of All Time

Morfydd Clark as The Rings of Power's Galadriel.
Morfydd Clark as The Rings of Power's Galadriel. Credit: Matt Grace/Amazon Prime Video.

The Media C-Suite follows Stacker’s research via news reports and entertainment outlets to find 25 of the most expensive TV shows ever produced.

By Angela Underwood & Madison Troyer, Stacker

Like feature films, high-end television is a numbers game in more ways than one. Intricate sets, using new visual effects and paying famous actors make television an expensive enterprise.  Some of the most significant numbers in TV show budgets are on actors’ pay cheques:  In the 1990s, well-known stars like Kelsey Grammer were getting $1.6 million for each episode of Fraser, while Jennifer Aniston and her five Friends raked in an estimated $1 million per episode.  

As broadcast and cable TV has given way to SVOD and the eruption of the “Streaming Wars”, story-tellers have embraced the appeal of serial story-telling through television shows being elevated to cinematic productions, with production budgets to match. But as average per episode cost of high-end television grows ever higher, the financial status of those platforms paying for it becomes increasing important to both investors and the Media & Entertainment industry as a whole. 

Band of Brothers was among the first big-budget shows not on major network television when it began airing on HBO in the late 1990s with an almost unprecedented budget of $12 million per episode. Intended as a one-off “mini-series”, having Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg attached to the project pushed HBO into funding it.  Since then, the network has spent even more on making shows like The Pacific and Game of Thrones.  Other networks and streaming platforms have followed suit. Disney+ is set to spend $136 million on Star Wars: Skeleton Crew and Netflix is expected to shell out $15 million per episode for its upcoming live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Stacker, the independent newswire, conducted research via news reports and entertainment outlets to find 25 of the most expensive TV shows ever produced.  Since most series budgets are based on rumour or estimates the final numbers are not official. 

Read on to discover which shows approached and crossed the once unthinkable $10 million-per-episode budget threshold—and which has the largest known budget, with a whopping $58.1 million per episode.

At Number 25: Sense8  

sense8 media c-suite
Image credit: Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$9.1 million per episode
On air: 2015 to 2018
Network: Netflix

“The Matrix” creators Lana and Lilly Wachowski co-created Sense8, a sci-fi thriller about a group of strangers scattered throughout the world who physically connect since they are all kin to one woman.  The series had the most massive budget of all Netflix productions, jumping from US$4.5 million to more than US$9 million an episode under producer Roberto Malerba’s rule.  However, that didn’t last long, as the show never developed a large enough audience to warrant its exorbitant costs and was promptly cancelled after two seasons.

At Number 24: Marco Polo

Image of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Netflix Original, Marco Polo.
Image credit: Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$9.2 million per episode
On air: 2014 to 2016
Network: Netflix

Like many period productions, Netflix’s Marco Polo broke budgets with its complex sets, showy costumes, and pricey props.  The journey of the 13th-century Italian merchant who befriended Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan was told throughout two 10-episode seasons that Netflix hoped would grow its content empire. The opulent, high concept period piece was the first Netflix original scripted series not to be renewed for a third season. Not the last. 

At Number 23: Big Bang Theory

The cast of Big Bang Theory.
Image credit: Michael Yarish/CBS.

Estimated Budget:  US$9.25 million per episode
On air:  2007 to 2019
Network:  CBS  

The CBS series Big Bang Theory was one of the costliest major network series ever.  The high budget was mainly due to original cast members Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, and Kaley Cuoco earning US$1 million per episode (up from US$60,000 per episode when the show started in 2007) by the end of the show’s 12-year run.  CBS was charging more than US$326,260 for 30-second advertising slots in 2013 and around US$258,500 in its final season.  For the series finale, the network asked for US$1.2 million to US$1.5 million for 30 seconds of ad time.

At Number 22:  Rome

rome media c-suite
Image credit: HBO.

Estimated Budget: US$9.3 million per episode
On air: 2005 to 2007
Network: BBC & HBO

This dramatic collaboration between the BBC and HBO couldn’t be saved even by hundreds of extras, exquisite costumes and extravagant set designs recreating the political machinations of soldiers, and their women, fighting under the Roman Republic during the days of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.  Rome ended after only two seasons. 

At Number 21:  Westworld

westworld media c-suite
Image credit: HBO.

Estimated Budget: US$10 million per episode
On air:  2016 to 2022
Network:  HBO

Westworld was an expensive underdog debuting after Game of Thrones.  The 90-minute pilot reportedly cost around US$25 million to produce and was subjected to script issues and re-shoots.  The futuristic Western, starring Hollywood A-listers Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, was co-produced by famed filmmaker J.J. Abrams. 

At Number 20:  The Witcher

the witcher media c-suite
Image credit: Jay Maidment/Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$10.1 million per episode
On air: 2019 to present
Network:  Netflix

Based on a popular video game and book franchise, The Witcher follows superpowered monster hunters who set out to rid their world of evil.  Netflix sunk millions of dollars into the show’s elaborate sets and special effects to ensure the franchise’s pre-existing audience would be satisfied enough to tune in each week—a gamble that paid off, considering the show was its most popular series in 2019.  Additionally, the show’s star, Henry Cavill, earned US$400,000 an episode during the first season, increasing to more than $1 million an episode for the second season.

At Number 19:  The Wheel of Time

wheel of time media c-suite
Image Credit: Jan Thijs/Amazon & Sony Pictures Television

Estimated Budget: US$10.2 million per episode
On air:  2021 to present
Network:  Amazon Prime Video

Scale seems to be the factor that drove the budget for Amazon’s The Wheel of Time to such extreme heights.  Based on a series of novels by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy show is shot on elaborately decorated sound stages and specially built, full-scale sets with hundreds (or sometimes even thousands) of extras.  Amazon Studio’s co-head of TV, Vernon Sanders, told IGN that the show’s budget is only growing for seasons two and three so that as the storylines and universe expand, the level of magic and detail will remain consistent.

At Number 18: Friends

friends media c-suite
Image credit: Warner Bros. Television/NBC.

Estimated Budget: US$10.3 million per episode
On air:  1994 to 2004
Network:  NBC

By the final season of Friends, stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, and David Schwimmer were all pursuing other projects, even though they were being paid upwards of $1 million each per episode.  The six-member regular cast each pulled in 2% of syndication income, which amounted in 2018 to at least $20 million each.

At Number 17:  Halo

halo media c-suite
Image credit: Paramount+.

Estimated Budget: US$10.4 million per episode
On air:  2022
Network:  Paramount+

Based on the popular video game franchise of the same name, Halo is a science fiction show set in the 26th century.  It’s safe to assume that nearly all of its US$200 million first season budget went toward its visual effects (VFX, physical sets, or costume design), as none of the actors are big enough to demand high salaries.  It’s also unclear whether the large budget was worth it, as the series’ first season garnered mixed reviews from critics and fans.

At Number 16:  The Get Down

getdown media c-suite
Image credit: Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$11 million per episode
On air:  2016-2017
Network:  Netflix

The Get Down could not get back up due to its bloated full season budget of US$120 million, stemming from the show’s expensive sets and exorbitant licensing fees for R&B and funk songs used in the series.  Set in the 1970s during the birth of hip hop and disco in famed New York City clubs like CBGB and Studio 54, the period drama musical starred Justice Smith and Jimmy Smits.

At Number 15: Band of Brothers

band of brothers media c-suite
Image credit: HBO.

Estimated Budget: US$12.5 million per episode
On air:  2001
Network:  HBO

The period costumes, European location, and star-studded cast did not come cheap for co-creators Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.  Critics acclaimed performances by actors Damian Lewis, Michael Fassbender, and David Schwimmer for the D-Day realism of the “Easy” Company 2nd Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.  The 10-episode World War II mini-series cost more than $125 million.

At Number 14: The Mandalorian

the mandalorian media c-suite
Image credit: Disney+.

Estimated Budget: US$12.6 million per episode
On air:  2019 to present
Network:  Disney+

The first live-action series in the Star Warsfranchise, The Mandalorian was also the first major original series for Disney+.  And while it didn’t receive the same budget as the platform’s Marvel series, Disney certainly invested in the project.  A large portion of the show’s first season budget went to a new, award-winning visual effects program called StageCraft.  This exciting innovation allows the actors to immerse themselves in the CG environments in real-time through massive wrap-around LED screens.

At Number 13: The Crown

the crown media c-suite
Image credit: Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$13 million per episode
On air:  201 to present
Network:  Netflix

It cost approximately US$37,000 to recreate the wedding dress of Queen Elizabeth II in the first episode of The Crown and things only got more expensive from there.  Along with the extravagant wardrobe of Elizabeth (Claire Foy), the series used up to 7,000 costumes and a life-sized replica of Buckingham Palace.  Netflix initially committed to spending $130 million on the first two seasons.

At Number 12: ER

er media c-suite
Image credit: NBC.

Estimated Budget US$13.1 million per episode
On air:  1994 to 2009
Network:  NBC

When the 15-season series first aired in 1994, George Clooney and fellow actors Noah Wyle and Julianna Margulies were not the household names they are today.  As that changed, so did the budget.  Add in the one episode directed by Quentin Tarantino, and ER goes down as one of the most expensive TV series of all time.

At Number 11: The Morning Show

the morning show media c-suite
Image credit: Apple TV+.

Estimated Budget: US$15 million per episode
On air:  2019 to present
Network:  Apple TV+

One of the most successful Apple TV+ series to date, The Morning Show follows the anchors of a popular morning news program (a la The Today Show or Good Morning America) as they deal with the fallout of a scandal.  The show stars Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, who, according to The Hollywood Reporter, each earned US$1.25 million per episode.  Toss in big-name recurring stars like Steve Carell and Julianna Margulies and an upcoming guest arc from Jon Hamm, and it’s easy to see how the budget could balloon thanks to actors’ salaries alone.

At Number 10: See

see media c-suite
Image credit: Apple TV+.

Estimated Budget: US$15.1 million per episode
On air:  2019 to 2022
Network:  Apple TV+

See is set 600 years into the future in a post-apocalyptic world where humans are blind.  According to the show’s star, Jason Momoa, the stark setting and the sighted cast members’ commitment to making their performances believable caused the budget to balloon.  In one interview, he described how they went to great lengths on both accounts—changing the actual landscape of the areas outside Vancouver where they were shooting and undergoing a month of “blindness training” before filming began.

At Number 9: The Sandman

the sandman media c-suite
Image credit: Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$15.25 million per episode
On air:  2022 to present
Network:  Netflix

Dedicated fans spent decades awaiting a Sandman series, so Netflix knew that they couldn’t spare any expense.  Based on a series of Neil Gaiman comic books, the show’s setting is an array of bizarre dream worlds.  The recreation of these worlds (through physical sets and special effects) caused the streaming service to allocate such a big budget for each episode.  The cost was so significant that rumours are rife that Netflix may not renew it for a second season. 

At Number 8: Game of Thrones

game of thrones media c-suite
Image credit: HBO.

Estimated Budget: US$15.4 million per episode
On air:  2011 to 2019
Network:  HBO

The most watched program in the history of the HBO network raised the bar for costumes, set design, and breakout talent, all of which cost millions per episode.  The fantasy drama, featuring dragons and deathly weddings, gained worldwide attention in its eight seasons for its plot, special effects, and astronomical budget. So wildly successful that it spawned the Number 7 most expensive TV series on our list.

At Number 7: House of the Dragon

house of the dragon media c-suite
Image credit: HBO.

Estimated Budget: US$20 million per episode
On air:  2022
Network:  HBO

The prequel to George R.R. Martin’s Game of ThronesHouse of the Dragon may be 2022’s most anticipated series.  Its huge budget caused quite a stir before it even premiered, with many worrying the show would wind up overhyped.  Thankfully, most fans were pleased with the final product, especially once they realized showrunners spent so much of the budget on things that mattered to the plot, like bringing 20 CGI dragons and an elaborate fantasy world to life.

At Number 6: The Pacific

the pacific media c-suite
Image credit: HBO.

Estimated Budget: US$21.7 million per episode
On air:  2010
Network:  HBO

Steven Spielberg, known for his multimillion-dollar film productions, spared no expense to recreate historically accurate battle scenes in the mini-series The Pacific. Additionally, co-executive producer Tony To told the Hollywood Reporter that the scene where Eugene Sledge, played by Joseph Mazzello, lands on the island of Peleliu cost US$5 million on its own.  That scene required 300 actors to stay on an Australian beach for four days.

At Number 5: WandaVision

wanda vision media c-suite
Image credit: Disney+.

Estimated Budget: US$25 million per episode
On air:  2021
Network:  Disney+

Here’s the deal with MCU shows: to make them must-watches for the legions of MCU fans, Disney+ has to ensure the quality is on-par with all of the theatrically released MCU movies.  That means sinking millions of dollars into sets, costumes, special effects, and actors’ salaries (you can’t just swap actors in and out and expect fans to just roll with it, after all).  In the case of WandaVision, show-runners spent a large portion of the budget on 3,010 special effects shots and the complete redecoration of the set for each episode.

At Number 4: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

the falcon and the winter soldier media c-suite
Image credit: Disney+.

Estimated Budget: US$25.2 million per episode
On air:  2021
Network:  Disney+

Similarly to WandaVisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier spent a good portion of its budget on special effects and actors’ salaries.  The series marked the first time Anthony Mackie would play Captain America, and Sebastian Stan reprised his role as Bucky Barnes.

At Number 3: Hawkeye

hawkeye media c-suite
Image credit: Disney+.

Estimated Budget: US$25.25 million per episode
On air:  2021
Network:  Disney+

When Disney+ ordered seasons of its 2021 MCU shows (WandaVisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Hawkeye), it reportedly bought out the backend on all three.  Essentially, they purchased all of the backend rights so that the production company (Marvel Studios) could never sell the series into syndication to another network, like ABC or CBS, ensuring you’d have to subscribe to Disney+ if you ever wanted to see them.  Likewise, creators and principal cast members lose potential syndication earnings.  Disney paid more upfront for all three projects to compensate for the loss.

At Number 2: Stranger Things

stranger things media c-suite
Image credit: Netflix.

Estimated Budget: US$30 million per episode
On air:  2016-present
Network:  Netflix

Making the first season of the sci-fi horror series Stranger Things look like a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie was costly.  The show’s creators, the Duffer brothers, were given a “spare no expense” experience with this sci-fi/fantasy/thriller combo. The put this in perspective, Netflix hit Virgin River costs US$3 million per episode and its period costume drama Bridgerton costs US$9 million per episode.

Number 1: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

the lord of the rings: the rings of power media c-suite
Image credit: Amazon Prime Video.

Estimated Budget: US$58.1 million per episode
On air:  2022
Network:  Amazon Prime Video

The most expensive TV series of all time (so far), The Rings of Power has a budget of just under US$1 billion for its first five seasons.  The money is representative of the pure scale of the show—Amazon spent its budget on things like massive physical sets and ground-breaking special effects—and the fact that this is a “passion project” for founder Jeff Bezos.  Additionally, Amazon reportedly spent US$250 million to obtain the rights to the Lord of the Rings appendices from the book series.

(This article has been re-published pursuant to a CC BY-NC 4.0 License) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/?ref=chooser-v1)

Canonical URL: https://stacker.com/stories/3159/25-most-expensive-tv-series-all-time

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