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The most expensive TV shows of all time: 'Stranger Things' and 'Lord of the Rings' enter pantheon

·Senior Reporter
·6-min read

The fourth season of Netflix's (NFLX) "Stranger Things," which will debut later this month in two separate installments, cost a whopping $30 million per episode, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But it's not the only upcoming series to double down on sky-high production costs.

Since the onset of streaming and premium television, content has quickly adopted a "better, faster, stronger" mindset that includes more CGI, more A-list stars and more spending than ever before.

Here's a look at some of the most expensive TV production budgets of all time.

"Friends" (NBC) - $10 million per episode

"Friends," which made its debut on NBC (CMCSA) in 1994, was one of the earliest shows to attract a big budget, mostly due to the six core cast members and their demands to be paid equally.

By the final seasons, each actor (Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer) was raking in $1 million per half-hour episode, thus contributing to a reported production cost of $10 million per episode for NBC.

To this day, "Friends" is one of the most expensive sitcoms ever made.

"Friends" (Courtesy: NBC)
"Friends" (Courtesy: NBC)

"Band of Brothers" (HBO) - $12.5 million per episode

Hitting the airwaves in 2001, HBO's (WBD) "Band of Brothers" required a per-episode cost of $12.5 million.

An American war drama miniseries based on the 1992 non-fiction book of the same name, "Band of Brothers" featured an up-and-coming cast that included Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Michael Fassbender and Donnie Wahlberg.

It was also among the first big-budget shows not on a major television networkat the time.

"The Mandalorian" (Disney+) - $12.5 million - $15 million per episode

"The Mandalorian," Disney's (DIS) first live-action "Star Wars" TV series, helped catapult Disney+ into early streaming success — but it came with a hefty price tag.

Former Disney CEO Bob Iger revealed at the time that the show cost the company "around $100 million" to make, meaning each episode had a budget of about $12.5 million.

Other reports claim the per-episode budget was as high as $15 million.

"It’s all about content, content, content..."Bob Chapek, Disney CEO

"The Crown" (Netflix) - $13 million per episode

According to multiple industry reports, Netflix's first season of "The Crown," which required elaborate costuming, cost the streamer $13 million per episode.

Upon its debut in November 2016, the series skyrocketed in popularity, leading to rumors that it captured the attention of Queen Elizabeth herself.

'The Crown' (Courtesy: Netflix)
'The Crown' (Courtesy: Netflix)

"ER" (NBC) - $13 million per episode

In 1998, NBC shelled out nearly $13 million per episode to keep "ER" on the network.

At the time, NBC was about to lose "Seinfeld," and had just lost its AFC football contract to CBS.

Soon-to-be A-list movie star George Clooney starred in the long-running medical drama for five seasons, earning two Primetime Emmy nominations and three Golden Globe nominations for his work as Dr. Doug Ross.

"Game of Thrones" (HBO) - $15 million per episode

HBO's pop culture phenomenon "Game of Thrones" saw its budget significantly increase over time.

For season one, the fantasy drama cost about $6 million per episode, but that number quickly rose to $15 million by the show's final season, according to Variety.

The outlet added that "Game of Thrones'" anticipated prequel, "House of the Dragon," is roughly on par with its predecessor's budget.

The first season of the upcoming series, which consists of 10 episodes and will debut on August 21, cost under $20 million per episode — despite even more CGI dragons than "GoT."

"Game of Thrones" (Courtesy: HBO)
"Game of Thrones" (Courtesy: HBO)

"The Morning Show," "See" (Apple TV+) - $15 million per episode

Apple (AAPL) dropped a jaw-dropping $300 million to produce two seasons (20 episodes) of "The Morning Show," according to Bloomberg.

The Hollywood Reporter added that stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon each pulled in $1.25 million per episode.

"See," another Apple TV+ series starring Jason Momoa, had a similar multi-million dollar budget.

"The Morning Show" (Courtesy: Apple TV+)
"The Morning Show" (Courtesy: Apple TV+)

"The Pacific" (HBO) - $20 million per episode

HBO's "The Pacific" secured a reported budget of $20 million per episode.

The 2010 military miniseries comprised of just ten episodes, meaning that the entire series cost HBO $200 million in total.

Marvel series (Disney+) - $25 million per episode

Marvel shows, from "WandaVision" and "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" to "Hawkeye" and "Moon Knight," command an estimated $25 million per episode to produce, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

That number is likely to grow even higher as Disney increases its content spending.

"WandaVision" (Courtesy: Marvel Studios/Disney+)
"WandaVision" (Courtesy: Marvel Studios/Disney+)

During the company's fiscal Q1 2022 earnings call, CFO Christine McCarthy noted that Disney plans to increase its spending on direct-to-consumer programming and production by $800 million to $1 billion in the current quarter versus the same period last year.

“It’s all about content, content, content,” CEO Bob Chapek reiterated.

"Stranger Things" (Netflix) - $30 million per episode

"Stranger Things" is set to debut one of the most expensive television seasons of all time.

At $30 million an episode (nine episodes in total), the fourth season of the 80s-inspired sci-fi show has a total cost of $270 million.

That's roughly on par with the production budget of "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" ($275 million) and double the cost of Leonardo Dicaprio's "The Revenant" ($135 million).

"Stranger Things" (Courtesy: Netflix)
"Stranger Things" (Courtesy: Netflix)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" (Amazon Prime Video) - $58.125 million per episode

If you thought "Stranger Things" season four was a pricey undertaking, just wait until the debut of Amazon Prime Video's new "Lord of the Rings" series.

According to Variety, Amazon (AMZN) plans to spend $465 million to produce the first season of "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power," which is set to debut eight episodes in September.

For context, Peter Jackson’s entire "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy cost $281 million.

Streaming balloons content spending

Streaming services, led by Netflix (which spends roughly $17 billion annually on content), helped push total global content spend past $220 billion in 2021, up 14% year-over-year, according to market researcher Ampere Analysis.

The firm expects that number to be even higher in 2022 with an estimate of $230 billion, primarily driven by subscription streaming services.

Some of the biggest content spenders from last year include powerhouse companies like Comcast (the parent company of NBC), Disney, Google (GOOGL), Netflix, ViacomCBS (now Paramount), and AT&T (T), the former parent company of HBO Max before its spin-off with Discovery.

Top 10 Biggest Content Spenders in 2021 (Source: Ampere Analysis)
Top 10 Biggest Content Spenders in 2021 (Source: Ampere Analysis)

Still, hurdles remain in the streaming space as subscription fatigue and increased churn weigh on even the most recognizable platforms.

Netflix, for example, is still reeling from its unexpected decline in Q1 subscribers, which led to a stock plummet of 35% and wiped more than $50 billion off of its market cap.

The streaming giant's disappointing results came as inflation remains high, consumers cut costs and competition intensifies, although it still boasts more than 200 million users worldwide.

Alexandra is a Senior Entertainment and Food Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @alliecanal8193 or email her at alexandra.canal@yahoofinance.com

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