8 of the most expensive TV shows made in the 1960s and '70s

One show nearly bankrupt a network!

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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1. 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!

2. 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!

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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

7. 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!

8. 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.

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daDoctah 1 month ago
Nothing wrong with the math that gets the Supertrain from coast-to-coast in 36 hours at 200 mph. After all, it doesn't have to do its top speed for the entire distance.
Carlton 1 month ago
No "Lost in Space, or Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea?
thedude1500 1 month ago
The "Las Vegas Show" actually did bankrupt a network — the short lived Overmyer/United Network in 1967. It was the only show the network was able to run.
One of the networks flagship stations was a UHF station in Toledo.
Utzaake 1 month ago
8. Legendary network television executive Fred Silverman died late last month. Supertrain was arguably his biggest flop when he was in charge of NBC. Watched one of its episodes, wasn't hooked. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/fred-silverman-dead-legendary-television-programmer-was-82-982205
dth1971 1 month ago

Battlestar Galatica didn't make the list?
JDnHuntsvilleAL dth1971 1 month ago
The MeTV Millennials really don't know anything. I see on the IMDb that the 1978 Battlestar Galactica had a budget of $750,000. It doesn't say if that is per episode or per year.
Lacey dth1971 18 days ago
My first thought exactly.
Runeshaper 1 month ago
Well, I know that some of these shows were definitely worth the budgets. This is in regards to both the return on investment & to the fans. Those westerns are all classics & you can't go wrong with Star Trek. Kind of surprised that Planet of the Apes only lasted through 14 episodes. I've never heard of Supertrain & I'm not too thrilled with the plot from what I read here, but that was a super expensive show if it almost bankrupted NBC.
MCGee 1 month ago
"The Name of the Game" 90 minute drama, with Robert Stack, Gene Barry, and Anthony Franciosa cost $400,000 per episode. It was produced by the same studio and production personnel as the later Mystery Movies (Columbo, McCloud), so those series were probably around the same budget.
DwWashburn 1 month ago
I remember on Super Train they used to have a bumper during commercial breaks. The train would be shown and the actor who played the porter yelled out " 'Board". And after watching the episode I was very bored.
MrsPhilHarris 1 month ago
I never saw Super Train. It might be fun to see.
DavidBartholomew 1 month ago
The shame of Super Train was it used recycled Love Boat scripts.

Bonanza filmed (outdoor) scenes in Northern California, on Lake Tahoe, then filmed in studio in Burbank.
Lantern 1 month ago
When it aired in the mid-60's, Time Tunnel was my dad's favorite program. One of my fondest memories is sitting on the sofa watching it with him.
Yeah too bad one of its stars James Darren turned out to be a deadbeat dad!!
BrittReid 1 month ago
Batman cost $205,000 per episode x twice a week. Not on the list ?
BxHanx 1 month ago
How could you leave Space 1999 off the list? It was $250,000 per episode. LOL
Mitchell 1 month ago
The ironic bit is that, for years, the Big Bash Hobby Shop in Philadelphia was offering the actual Supertrain model for sale...


For everyone else, there was The Big Bus.
JERRY6 Mitchell 1 month ago
wonder where it is now ?
texasluva JERRY6 1 month ago
I believe it is scrapped. Who, when or where I have no idea.
The mighty Cyclops!
Thanks!
Even Madden envies the Big Bus with his dinky Cruiser ,
Always surprised it didn't appear in any of the 31 editions of
his world famous NFL football video game!
RobCertSDSCascap 1 month ago
How did Batman miss the list?
$800,000 just to BUILD the Bat-cave! Not to mention all the
Special Guest Villains.
Same comment applies to the original MFU TV series. I couldn't find the cost per episode, but somebody out there must know. Not only were original sets (per episode) being continuously built, but they were meticulously appointed with unique details to reflect an "international" flavor. What they didn't spend on Set Design (Costuming & Filming techniques), the balance went into hiring big name guest stars! Like ST, the production team was constantly challenged for being over-budget! Some episodes were said to be the equivalent of completing made-for TV movies!
Wow! Fantastic find!
Well maybe we can find out if you tell us what MFU means.
Man from UNCLE, only true fans know the acronym! 😉 LOL!
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