Terra Nova and the most expensive TV ever made

As Steven Spielberg's Jurassic spectacular hits UK screens, we take a look at the costs behind the biggest shows on TV

Terra Nova isn’t just one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2011, it’s also one of the priciest programmes to ever grace the small screen.


Production delays, a flooded set and the firing – then rehiring – of its entire writing staff are just some of the pitfalls into which the programme has stumbled on its way from script to screen. Throw in a story that makes Lost look like it was daubed in crayon on the back of a napkin and it’s perhaps no surprise that the CGI-laden series is being touted as the most expensive show ever made.

The 13-part epic, which lands on Sky 1/HD this Monday, tells the story of a future community who travel 180 million years into the past to escape a polluted 22nd Century and rebuild the human race in the age of the dinosaurs. Part environmental disaster, part sci-fi epic, the series looks like a Frankenstein’s monster of Avatar and Jurassic Park. Its cinematic credentials are only enhanced by the presence of Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg on the production team and, if anyone can make the series a success, it’s the man who’s been responsible for some of the biggest blockbusters in film history.

But despite the glitz and the glamour that’s surrounded the show’s launch, Terra Nova hails from surprisingly humble beginnings. Written by British scribbler Kelly Marcel, it was originally a pet project penned for her father, before it went on to spark a bidding war between producers on both sides of the pond.

After eventually landing at Fox, the production has snowballed. The series overall has cost the network a staggering $70 million (£45 million) to produce, with the pilot episode alone coming in at in excess of $20 million (£13 million). That equates to roughly $200,000 for every minute of action and one hell of a risk on the part of the Murdoch-owned network.

The costs may seem astronomical, but US TV has history when it comes to expensive episodics. Shows like Game of Thrones ($60 million a series), Boardwalk Empire ($50 million a series) and Lost, which at the time produced the most expensive pilot ever made at $12 million, have shown that execs aren’t afraid to throw money at a series in the hope that some of it sticks. Spielberg, too, of course, has previous when it comes to splashing the cash, with his wartime HBO mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific costing $180 million and $125 million respectively.

High production values, period detail and Hollywood stars all push the prices up, of course, but a show doesn’t have to look out of this world to cost the earth. The final series of Friends, for example – a programme with three cameras and about as many sets – cost NBC a whopping $180 million during its final season as its stars’ salaries skyrocketed alongside the show’s success.

While British TV operates on much more meagre budgets, we’re not averse to splashing the cash either. The X Factor, Simon Cowell’s headline-generating karaoke Thunderdome, costs an average of £2 million an episode; while family favourite Doctor Who checks out at around £13 million a series. Even seemingly pedestrian programmes like the countryside carnage of Midsomer Murders cost a surprising £1.5 million an episode to produce.

But big budgets don’t always breed successful shows. There are high-profile flops like Rome, which cost an estimated $110 million to produce and was cancelled after just two seasons. One of US TV’s biggest flops, however, is a little-known show called Father of the Pride. Each episode of the animated series cost $1.6 million and took a full nine months to make – considerably longer than it took audiences to turn off in their droves.

So while the rest of the world tightens its purse strings, why do networks continue to spend big on series? Because, by and large, they continue to make money. Even if on the off chance it doesn’t make its budget on original broadcast, series like Terra Nova will make a fortune in international licencing deals, downloads and DVD sales. Big money televisual events also help to put the broadcasters on the map, establishing them as leading lights with audiences and advertisers alike.

The stakes are high but so are the rewards, and only time will tell if Terra Nova can justify Fox’s gamble on its hefty price tag. But if the early reviews are anything to go by, it looks like the network might be onto a winner.