Today, tvbythenumbers.com did an intense analysis on Mad Men, breaking down costs and revenue to prove their point that even though the show only gets 1.5 million viewers average yet costs $2 million an episode, it's still worthwhile for the network to air it.
Since my previous article on budget seems to be popular (it's the most viewed article on this site BY FAR), I figured why not do the same exercise for Supernatural. There might be interest. I was especially inspired by seeing the Supernatural Season Four DVD earning the #1 spot on the Amazon.com Bestsellers List for Movies and TV. So here we go, get your thinking hats on, it's TV Economics 101, aka Supernatural by the numbers.
Above and Below The Line
Before explaining anything budget related, it helps to know how costs are broken out in TV (and film) productions. There is a literal line drawn between Above the Line Costs and Below the Line Costs. Above the line are the wages for writers, producers, directors and of course, talent. Shows like House and 24 have rather large above the line costs because of their large ensemble casts and the fact that their leads pull in an obscene, yet often deserved per episode salary.
For Supernatural, that above the line costs for four seasons included two leads making up the entire cast and a writing staff of about 8 people, where most shows have staffs of 10-12 writers. This year, the above line costs went up slightly because of the addition of Misha Collins, but we're not talking Kiefer Sutherland dollars here. There are also likely increases for Sera Gamble and Ben Edlund since their titles were elevated to Executive Producers, plus there's increases for existing talent for making it to season five. Those increases for this show are likely negligible, since it's CW dollars. Also, when three of your writers are also producers, that saves on cost too since they aren't exactly drawing two salaries.
Below the line costs for Supernatural are likely in line if not more than the rest of the industry. Below the line costs reflect direct production costs and come from wages for grips, set decorators, guest actors, photographers, editors, composers, and slaves (I mean, PA's), plus other costs like special and visual effects which for a sci-fi show is larger than normal. A big expense is also the location shoots, which requires tons of costly mobile equipment and large crews. Those shoots take place an average of two days out of the eight day shooting schedule. Most sitcoms don't do location shoots due to cost (especially a half hour show) but with television production these days, it's a must for dramas.
Supernatural also films in Vancouver. Shows like The X-Files flocked to Vancouver back in the early 90's because of the tax breaks and incredible exchange rate breaks. At the time, the US dollar ran roughly 70 cents on the dollar. It was estimated at the time a show could save up to 30 percent of costs by filming in Vancouver vs. Los Angeles. Today, the US and Canadian dollar are almost even and other US states are offering similar tax breaks, so that number is now ten percent or less. Still its savings, and shows established there already have a broken in crew, so they continue as is.
Mad Men costs about $2.3 million per episode, give or take a few hundred thousand here or there. Supernatural's budget falls roughly in that range per episode (after Canadian savings). So, now I can start the fun part, the math.
Let's presume, based on 22 episodes a year plus overruns for season premieres and finales that the total budget in US dollars comes to $45 million per season. If the CW charged $50,000 for each commercial and ran 20 spots during the broadcast that puts their license fee at around one million per episode. I know The CW doesn't make that, so the license fee is likely less. According to Ad Age, the price in the 2008-2009 season for Supernatural was only about $35,000 per 30 second spot. While I have no idea what The CW made in the scatter market (ads that are sold closer to air time), judging by how many spots went to promotion of other CW shows and my local affiliate, I'd say The CW didn't burn up the scatter market. So, considering The CW's license fee also covers repeats, chances are they make up their ad money in repeats, assuming there's no make goods (giving money back to advertisers because the network didn't meet ratings projections). Sadly the last two years, there were.
In other words, at best The CW is breaking even with Supernatural, or at worse losing some money. They certainly aren't raking in the cash. However, being the second highest rated scripted show and third highest rated show overall, plus all the â€œbuzzâ€ that it gets that the network craves, it brings eyeballs to the network which gives them a platform to promote their other stuff.
So, Warner Brothers likely eats anywhere from $23-30 million of the budget each season. There are four ways to make up that cost. First is live streaming online supported by advertising or subscription fees. Currently, Supernatural episodes only air on The CW website and that's only two or three recent ones. So there's no revenue there.
Second is second run syndication, aka "off-net" syndication. Supernatural has enough episodes now after season four, but I haven't exactly read about any deals. That's because the off-net syndication market has dried up. Cable stations are doing their own original programming now, and local stations are opting for more infomercials at 1:00 am instead of airing cult horror shows. Supernatural does air in off-net syndication in other countries like Canada and England, but there's no deal in the US yet. Chances are when a deal does come, it likely won't be sold for $1.9 million an episode like CSI.
The third way to earn revenue is through DVD sales. This one gets really murky. While finding actual sales figures for the entire series seems to be impossible, I know from digging into my archives that in the first two weeks after the season three DVD set was released it sold around 165,000 units for total US revenue of almost $7 million. That's just US revenue and that's just two weeks. So, assuming the show went on to sell 250,000 units that's over $10 million. With blu-ray sets, season combo sets, and of course international DVD sales, I'm probably not stretching in saying that number is likely $15 to $20 million a season. Heck, throw in the amounts of $1.20 an episode from iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand for fun to support that number.
The fourth way to earn income for the producer is through international distribution of first run episodes. This is Supernatural's bread and butter, but there's no way to tell for sure just how much Supernatural is earning internationally. I know big name shows like Lost try to fetch near what the license fee is at home, which is currently $2 million an episode. Heroes runs at about $1.3 million. Considering Supernatural airs in near seventy countries at various times, even at $100,000 per episode that comes to roughly 7 million per episode. I'll let you all do the math for 7,000,000 times 82, assuming Warner Brothers sells all four seasons. Often times they don't. However, with season five on the horizon that number will keep growing. Plus, I have this nagging feeling I'm grossly underestimating, for the show is likely not that cheap in countries like England and Australia. It probably is that cheap though in Bulgaria, where Warner Brother's shows are sold in group packages to sister cable outlets.
So, you tell me, is it worthwhile for Warner Brothers to keep Supernatural going? Buffy The Vampire Slayer has gone on to earn over $150 million in DVD sales so far (possibly well over since that number is a few years old). Smaller shows on smaller networks actually outperform many of the top network shows in DVD sales. Of course we don't need all these numbers above to know it's worthwhile to keep Supernatural going. That's a no brainer.