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Costly Productions: Not Just for Movies Anymore

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Highly Expensive TV Productions

Source: HBO

Multi-million-dollar epic productions featuring prestigious actors and costly special effects aren't just for multiplexes any more.

Television now serves as home to programming that rivals anything Peter Jackson — the guru behind "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit — can put on the screen, with the budgets to prove it.

What drives these huge budgets? According to Shari Anne Brill, president and CEO of Shari Anne Brill Media, it comes down to location, talent and CGI, and that's just for starters.

"The sets and costumes can drive up the price [of] historical dramas," the advertising veteran said in an interview. "Stunts can be expensive." She added that budgets run into deficits when unforeseen problems rear their heads.

"Sometimes you'll go into extra money if the show doesn't test well, or if you have issues with talent and you have to re-shoot entire scenes," she said. "Sometimes there are creative differences, or someone was a prima donna and had to be replaced."

So is it worth spending millions of dollars to create a television show with no guarantee that it will be successful? According to Brill, if the show is a hit, the answer becomes an emphatic 'yes'.

What are some of the most expensive television productions of all time? Read ahead to find out.

By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 15 Jan. 2013

"Band of Brothers"

Source: HBO

"Band of Brothers" was a 10-episode World War II miniseries that aired on HBO in 2001. With Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks serving as executive producers, it brought the show a level of gravitas that compared favorably to "Saving Private Ryan," the 1998 runaway critical and box-office hit. The show also used real World War II veterans as consultants, helping to make the show feel realistic.

According to The New York Times, the price tag for "Band of Brothers" was $110 million. The miniseries went on to win six Emmys and sold $250 million worth of DVDs, according to The Los Angeles Times.

"Boardwalk Empire"

Source: HBO

"Boardwalk Empire" is an HBO series that chronicles gangster life in Atlantic City during the 1920s. Few people are as qualified to bring the violent Prohibition era to the screen as "GoodFellas" and "Casino" director Martin Scorsese, who directed the $18 million feature-length pilot. Why, some asked, would HBO go to such expensive lengths for a new show?

Part of it may have been pure return on equity. "After 'The Sopranos' was finished, a lot of people felt like there was no point in keeping HBO, and they cancelled it," Brill said. She speculated that the network may have hoped that a new gangster series could attract new subscribers, or win back those it had lost when "The Sopranos" ended.

"Father of the Pride"

Source: NBC

"Father of the Pride" was a short-lived NBC animated sitcom that ran in 2004. It was so short-lived, in fact, that the first season didn't even air in its entirety. The show was about a family of white lions, one of whom appears with Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas.

It cost $1.6 million per episode to produce, so it needed to be a ratings juggernaut to justify its expense. Unfortunately, it lost nearly half of its highly-coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic within just a couple of months. The show was quickly euthanized before even completing its scheduled run.

(NOTE: NBC is the parent company of CNBC.)

"Friends"

Source: NBC

Thirty-minute sitcoms normally cost very little money, as they're shot on an inexpensive set with a single camera. The NBC mega-hit "Friends" had modest production demands, but the cost of the show was driven up as time went on by the actors.

The stars of the ensemble show -- Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer -- grew increasingly popular in their own right. In 2002, however, rather than lobby for higher salaries individually, the actors lobbied as a group to have them bumped up to $1 million each per episode.

"Game of Thrones"

Source: HBO

"Game of Thrones" is an HBO fantasy series that has raked in devoted fans since its April 2011 premiere. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the budget for the first season was between $50 million and $60 million. Brill said that it was worth the risk.

"When something hits that well and does well overseas, then that's where all the money is," she said. "Something like HBO is not ad-supported, so there's much more money in back-end stuff like DVDs and overseas sales."

"Lost"

Source: ABC

"Lost" was a massively popular ABC TV show that followed the survivors of a plane crash who are stranded on a desert island. It premiered in 2004, and went on to become a cultural phenomenon and ratings juggernaut throughout its six seasons.

The pilot was directed by J. J. Abrams, and The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported that it cost between $10 million and $14 million. This was the most money ever spent on a pilot episode in ABC history, but the loyal following of millions of "Losties" suggests it was worth it.

"Pan Am"

Source: ABC

"Pan Am" was an ABC series about the pilots and stewardesses of the iconic airline, which is now defunct. It took place during the 1960s, earning plaudits for the realism of its sets and costumes.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sony Pictures Television spent $10 million on the pilot alone. It looked great and received favorable reviews, yet that wasn't enough to keep viewers interested. The series ended in February 2012, a mere five months after it debuted.

"Rome"

Source: BBC

"Rome" was originally pitched to HBO as a miniseries, but the network liked the idea so much that they ordered a whole series. According to BBC News, the sprawling tale of the Roman Empire became a joint venture between HBO and BBC that cost close to $100 million.

Still, the show was cancelled after two seasons, primarily because of its huge price tag. HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht cited the show's cost as a factor behind why the BBC wouldn't commit to more seasons. "This was a big bite for them," he said.

"Terra Nova"

Source: Fox Broadcasting Company

"Terra Nova" was a 2011 Fox series in which a family was transported millions of years into the past to encounter CGI dinosaurs. The creatures were expensive to render, and according to The Washington Post, the pilot alone cost between $10 million and $20 million to produce.

Despite good reviews, Fox didn't pick up the pricey show for a second season. "Probably 'Terra Nova' wasn't supposed to cost as much as it did, but went over budget for CGI, which put it out of the ballpark," Brill said.

"The X Factor"

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"The X Factor" is a reality show created by Simon Cowell of Fox's "American Idol" fame. The nearly-identical premise involves the search for new singing talent through public auditions, with a $5 million recording contract as the prize. According to Cowell, the budget of the show is $100 million, a figure which he revealed while discussing the ongoing instability in the judges' chairs.

Celebrity judges such as Britney Spears, Paula Abdul and Demi Lovato had come and gone as the show progressed. At one point, rumors circulated that Cowell had offered megastar Beyonce Knowles the opportunity to be a judge for $100 million. In an interview with the television show "Extra", however, he squashed the rumor immediately. "The budget of the show is $100 million," he said. "No one is going to pay $100 million a year for someone."