Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dramatic Television Series Cost of Production

The answer varies. It can run from the low hundreds of thousands (minimum of about $500,000 to produce a Pilot for a drama series) to the $13 Million PER EPISODE NBC paid Warner Bros. to produce  the hit show ER (network average is $1.5 to $2 Million per episode for a television series). This fee covers everything associated with producing one episode from salaries to paper clips (there are on average 22 - 26 episode on "free" broadcast television such as NBC, ABC, CBS, etc. and 13 episode on cable broadcast stations such as HBO, TNT, FX, etc.). 

The cost of producing television shows (on free broadcast stations) is subsidized through the sale of advertising to sponsors. Corporations pay substantial fees to air their commercials during a specific show. Higher rated shows bring with them a higher cost to advertise on their time slot. But on the flip side, this fee exposes a company's product or message to a large potential customer base. This is what advertisers pay for. 

But what about HBO - it does not have any advertising during its shows. A cable network like HBO makes its money in large part through its share of cable and satellite subscriptions as well a product placement fees (a good deal for advertisers who would otherwise expect to pay upwards of $287,000 for a 30-second commercial to obtain the kind of exposure afforded through product placement on a cable show like "The Sopranos"). For a more in-depth discussion check out my post on "Cable Channel Strategy's"

A cable network's audience base is smaller and it normally costs less to produce a show aired on HBO. But proportionally the difference in expenditure is minimal when considering the rate of advertising versus that of subscriptions and the fact that cable "seasons" are about half that of free broadcast television seasons.
"The Wire," for example, is one of HBO's most critically acclaimed and successful shows. It costs approximately $1.5 Million to produce a single episode of that show. Another HBO show - "Deadwood" - costs about $5 Million per episode of that show to produce. And the price is steeper for an astronomically successful show like "The Sopranos." Given such considerations, you begin to understand what a challenge it is for a new show to attract the necessary resources to produce and air. 

Forgoing big name stars and employing relatively unknown actors is a consideration that may help keep overall costs down but the minimum costs for services they render are still set by the collective bargaining process of trade unions such as the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America. Let's take a closer look...

How much do actors get paid? Again, this varies. While James Gandolfini can command a salary of more than $800,000 for one episode of "The Sopranos" and the cast of "Friends" can each demand a cool $1 Million for a single episode, 
Variety  Reported that Charlie Sheen will receive 1.9 Million per episode for acting and executive producing on "Two and a Half Men" most actors do not command such exorbitant fees.
According to one established talent manager with Executive Producer credits, an unknown actor can expect - with the help of an agent or manager worth their commission - a fee of about $50,000 (minimum) to film a Pilot episode for a one-hour drama - and that is if they are considered a "star" on the show. After the Pilot, the salary for that same actor on that same show can drop to about $17,500 (or more) per episode. That is still a lot of money considering that a series can enter into a deal to produce 13 episodes on cable networks (e.g. $17,500 x 13) and 22-26 on free broadcast networks ($17,500 x 22 - 26). And these are rock bottom prices for unknown talent. If a show becomes successful, that same actor will have the power to request higher fees for services rendered. Note: all figures are hypothetical, can vary and do not extend to all categories of actors.

And if you wonder why a salary is higher for a Pilot (foundation episode for the series) it is because an actor must be retained for an extended period of time to ensure availability once the Pilot is picked up and produced into a series. In other words, you pay an actor more so that he doesn't take on any more work for a set period of time. 

Generally speaking, on a cost-conscious television series, salaries (for actors) can range from a minimum of (please consult the screen actors guild ba
sic agreement for latest information): 
$130 per day for "background actors"
$759 per day for "day performers" (single line of dialogue or speech - single day of work)
$1,920 for three day performers
$3,158 - $4,188 for weekly performers

$2,828 per week for stunt coordinator (flat rate)
The main players or "stars" of the show may be paid at higher rates than those quoted here.

This is a far cry from the $50 per day many independent productions offer as compensation (if you get a paid at all). These features operate outside the scope of the collective bargaining process and thus are not bound by the SAG and WGA minimum standard agreements. But such productions are valuable to the actor in that they offer practical experience and credits on a resume. 

Keep in mind that these are simply guidelines. You can earn much more but you cannot earn any less. These are for television programs - not commercials. Also consider that these salary figures are specific for acting. There are different scales for writers and other personnel.

In addition to salary expenses, Producers of a television show must consider everything from catering, per
diems, transportation, lodging and even the cost of flight insurance. There are a lot of different categories of expenditures associated with the production of a television series - not all have been mentioned here.

For more information on compensation and the minimum standard agreements, please visit the Screen Actors Guild ( and 

Writers Guild of America (West) for those west of the Mississippi River ( or

Writers Guild of America East if you live east of the Mississippi River ( 


  1. This is detailed information on pricing is very helpful. thank you

  2. This is really good!
    Im just starting out in tv business and currently budgeting for a documentary programme, would you be able to advise me on producer costs?

  3. i got interested in this Topic due to the cancellation of magic city Very informative thank you

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