It seems like television networks and streaming platforms are spending more on programming now than ever before. Big budget shows like Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian are rumored to cost tens of millions of dollars an episode.
Fifty years ago, the landscape was quite different. Large budgets were reserved for movies. Television was the domain of cheap, easy-to-produce programs shot on simple sets and studio backlots. Or was it?
The shows on this list prove that some serious money went into producing television, even back then!
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Wagon Train – $100,000 per episode
This popular western told the story of the people traveling by wagon from Missouri to California in the late 1800s. Each episode focused on a different guest star, usually someone the wagon train encountered along the way. The series initially starred Ward Bond who also had a role in John Ford’s 1950 film Wagon Master which inspired the show. After Ward died suddenly in 1960, he was replaced by John McIntire who stayed with the show until it ended in 1965. While not the most expensive show on this list, Wagon Train’s per episode cost of around $100,00 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s over $800,000 in today’s money!
Bonanza - $225,000 per episode
This classic TV western followed the daily lives of the Cartwright family. Lorne Green played the widowed patriarch Ben Cartwright who lived with his three grown sons Adam, Eric (nicknamed “Hoss”) and Joseph or “Little Joe.” The brothers were played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon, respectively. Over its fourteen-year run, Bonanza more than doubled its production budget. In its first few seasons it cost around $110,000 per episode but eventually ballooned to $225,000 by season fourteen. In today’s money, that’s a range of $975,000 to $1.3 million!
Star Trek – $200,000 per episode
The iconic sci-fi series may seem low-budget compared to its modern successors, but when it premiered it was a big production. It had an average per-episode cost of about $200,000 which is over $1.5 million adjusted for inflation. One classic episode was particularly expensive. The penultimate installment of season one, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” cost more than $250,000 to produce. The plot entails McCoy traveling back in time and changing history. Naturally, Captain Kirk and Spock follow him through the "doorway to any time" to make things right. The episode is widely regarded as one of the best of the entire series, well worth the almost $2 million it would cost in today’s money.
Land of the Giants – $250,000 per episode
Produced by Irwin Allen, creator of hit shows Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, this short-lived 1960s sci-fi series had a high-concept premise that required lots of expensive special effects. Set in the fictional future of 1983, the series followed the crew and passengers of a suborbital transport ship that gets caught in a storm and sent to another planet — one that bears remarkable resemblance to earth except everything there is twelve times bigger. At the time, it set the record for the most expensive show on the air —costing $250,000 per episode. That would be about $1.8 million an episode if it were made today.
Planet of the Apes – $250,000 per episode
Based on the widely successful film franchise, the series told the familiar story of astronauts stranded on earth thousands of years in the future where apes are now in charge. The show never took off, however, and only aired fourteen episodes in the fall of 1974. Due to extensive location shooting, costumes and effects, the cost per episode was around $250,000 which is over $1.3 million in today’s money.
The Virginian – $330,000 per episode
Premiering in 1962, The Virginian, was the very first 90-minute western to appear on TV. It followed the men who worked on the Shiloh Ranch in late nineteenth-century Wyoming. The show garnered high ratings and ran successfully for nine seasons. Because of the length of each episode and lots of outdoor locations, the show was budgeted at about $330,000 per episode. Adjusted for inflation, that’s north of $2.8 million!
Image: AP Photo
The Time Tunnel – $500,000 pilot episode
This 1966–67 series ran for just 30 episodes and was prolific producer Irwin Allen’s shortest-lived show. The plot revolved around the scientists working on Project Tic-Toc, a top-secret government effort to build a time machine. The characters traveled to many different moments in history, starting off with the sinking of the Titanic in the very first episode. Sadly, the ratings weren’t high enough to justify the enormous cost and the series was canceled after one season. Throughout its run, the show was rumored to be one of the most expensive show on TV. The pilot episode, directed by Irwin Allen himself, cost a whopping $500,000 to make. That’s almost $4 million in today’s money!
Supertrain – over $1 million per episode
Of course, the show that has to make any list of expensive TV shows is the 1979 super-flop Supertrain. It was about the people onboard a futuristic train that went 200mph and could travel between New York City and Los Angeles in 36 hours (if you’re thinking that math doesn’t add up, it doesn’t.) The show only aired nine episodes and nearly bankrupt NBC. Additionally, the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics didn’t help things for the network. The costs, including a full-size train and two scale models, are estimated to be north of $10 million. One of the scale models crashed before the first episode even aired, adding to the costs. To this day, Supertrain remains one of the biggest failures in TV history. Costing $1 million an episode in 1979 (a conservative estimate) is equivalent to more than $3.5 million today.