TV shows can be expensive to produce, and when the pilot episode is the audience’s first impression of a show, production companies might spend millions of dollars on the first episode.
With some pilot episodes costing up to $30 million, our online casino and online slots experts at Spin Genie wanted to find out - is it really worth spending that much on a pilot? We wanted to reveal if shows with expensive pilot episodes have more success.
We looked at the reported cost of some of the most popular TV show pilot episodes and compared this to Google searches, TikTok and Instagram activity and IMDb ratings to reveal the most successful TV shows and their pilot episode budgets.
The Most Successful TV Shows
1. Game Of Thrones | TV show success score: 9.64/10
It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones tops the list of the most successful TV shows with expensive pilot episode budgets. The fantasy series inspired by the books of George R. R. Martin was a worldwide success, with media attention lasting for eight years while the show was on air. The show has the highest IMDb rating of all the series on our list, with an impressive 9.2 out of 10. Game of Thrones also inspired 18.1 billion TikTok views, 13.8 million Instagram posts and 69.2 million annual Google searches. The Game of Thrones pilot episode cost a reported $10 million, placing it eleventh on our list of the most expensive pilots.
2. Stranger Things | TV show success score: 8.10/10
There’s probably no one on Earth who hasn’t heard of the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things, featuring stars like Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard and Winona Ryder. The sci-fi themes and visuals undeniably captivate international audiences, while the 80s nostalgia appeals to older audiences. Not to mention the powerful soundtrack with the ability to influence the charts. Stranger Things ranks second on our list of successful TV shows, with more Google searches and Instagram posts than any other show. The show reached great success despite placing 17th for the pilot episode budget, which was a reported $6 million.
3. The Mandalorian | TV show success score: 7.86/10
The Mandalorian’s most recent season has taken the world by storm. The Disney+ exclusive’s third season stars Pedro Pascal, and the show’s pilot episode is reported to have cost $12.5 million. While that might seem like an expensive debut episode, The Mandalorian ranks 10th on our list of the most expensive pilot episodes despite its major success. The series has 15.7 million annual Google searches, 2.4 million Instagram posts and an impressive 4.6 billion TikTok views.
The Most Expensive Pilot Episodes
1. Vinyl | Pilot budget: $30,000,000 (£24,128,400)
Created by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, the show Vinyl had no shortage of A-lister backing. With such big names behind it, it’s naturally no surprise that the pilot of Vinyl cost a reported $30 million. Vinyl debuted with 10 episodes and failed to generate enough attention for a second season. The HBO show ranked second to last on our list of the most successful shows with expensive pilot episodes, showing that higher pilot budgets don’t guarantee lasting success.
2. Westworld | Pilot budget: $25,000,000 (£20,107,000)
HBO is no stranger to expensive TV show pilot episodes, making their second appearance in our top three with Westworld. The sci-fi show’s most recent season premiered in 2022 with positive reviews. The pilot of Westworld reportedly cost $25 million and the show ranks in our top 10 for the most successful series.
3. The Pacific | Pilot budget: $20,000,000 (£16,085,600)
The Pacific is the third HBO production to rank in our top three most expensive TV show pilots. With a reported $20 million pilot budget, there were high hopes for The Pacific’s success, however, the show ranked joint last on our list for Instagram attention with just 100 posts and the series received little buzz on TikTok.
3. Terra Nova | Pilot budget: $20,000,000 (£16,085,600)
Fox produced Terra Nova for just one season back in 2011, but despite its short time on air, the show had one of the most expensive pilot episodes ever made. Terra Nova’s first episode had an estimated $20 million budget although the show ranked last on our list of the most successful TV shows.
The Cheapest Pilot Episodes
1. Narcos | Pilot budget: $2,500,000 (£2,010,700)
Narcos tells the true story of Colombia’s most infamous drug lord in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat, episode after episode. The Netflix show’s pilot episode was the cheapest out of all the shows we looked at. The reported $2.5 million pilot generated huge success, with Narcos ranking fifth on our list of the most successful shows.
2. The Walking Dead | Pilot budget: $3,400,000 (£2,734,552)
The Walking Dead revolutionised the zombie apocalypse genre and captured the attention of millions of viewers across the world. With an estimated $3.4 million pilot budget, the show had one of the cheapest debut episodes of all the series on our list. Despite having one of the least expensive pilot episodes, The Walking Dead ranks fourth on our list of the most successful shows.
3. Orange is the New Black | Pilot budget: $4,000,000 (£3,217,120)
The show that gave us breakthrough actors like Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black is one of the most iconic Netflix originals ever produced. The show’s pilot episode reportedly cost $4 million, making it one of the lowest-budget pilots of all the shows we looked at.
We wanted to investigate whether expensive pilot episodes impact TV series success, so we sourced the budget for popular pilot episodes using GameRant, Variety, WhatCulture, and the Hollywood Reporter. We used Google Finance to convert each pilot episode budget into GBP on 30th May 2023.
We sourced the number of annual worldwide Google searches from Google Ads Keyword Planner, looking at searches made between 1st May 2022 and 30th April 2023.
We sourced the number of Instagram posts for each TV show’s hashtag from Instagram on 30th May 2023.
We sourced the number of TikTok views for each TV show’s hashtag from TikTok on 30th May 2023.
We sourced each show’s IMDb rating out of 10 from IMDb on 30th May 2023.
Each show was then given a normalised score out of ten for each of the above factors, before an average of these scores was taken.
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