Since I received some questions about a blog post I made last week, I’ve done some more digging on it and will follow up today. I hope this is the last I will write about America Unearthed for the rest of the week.
Last week I released documents related to the budget for H2’s America Unearthed. Committee Films, the studio behind the series, asserted in those documents that the pilot episode for the series had a budget of $617,000, including $27,000 in pay and other compensation for series star Scott Wolter. Committee requested more than $112,000 in government and private matching funds from Minnesota Film and Television’s Snowbate program for filming the pilot in Minnesota.
A television producer commenting on my blog post suggested that the numbers more accurately reflected the cost of the initial order of 8-9 episodes, or perhaps the full 13-episode series, since most H2 programs operate on a budget of less than $80,000 per episode.
To find out the truth, I contacted Minnesota Film and Television, and officials there confirmed that Committee Films declared to them, under penalty of law, that the submitted budget was only for the pilot episode, a single hour of television, and that Committee was required to provide documentation of this.
“Budgets are verified based on the overall network contract,” said a spokesperson for Minnesota Film and Television. “All submitted expenses certified for Snowbate are verified with receipts and invoices submitted after production. No money is reimbursed unless these receipts and invoices are verifiable per the terms of the Snowbate program.”
Under the terms of the Snowbate program, Committee is required to submit final expense reports by next week, and I have requested a copy of the verification documents when they become available to document how much Committee actually received.
Their budget is astonishing by the standards of low-rated cable channels. Even high rated channels like History, the parent of H2, rarely crack $500,000 for series’ per-episode budgets. $300,000 is near the high end for well-performing if unremarkable documentary series like The Universe, while new, untested programs rarely exceed $225,000 per hour, according to the Documentary Television website. Occasional high-profile, one-off specials like America: The Story of US can have budgets of $1.25 million per hour. While I find it hard to believe that America Unearthed was given a budget half that of History’s most-marketed, highest-profile special event series, it’s not impossible since the (very few) highest-performing series on the History parent channel average $425,000 per episode, and pilots are typically more expensive than regular episodes.
So that leaves a few possibilities: (1) History and H2 were extraordinarily generous in creating America Unearthed, giving it the H2 network’s highest budget, more than all other original programming combined. (2) The budget for the pilot included items that were amortized across multiple episodes, such as location shoots, music rights, graphics packages, etc. (3) The numbers given in the documents are not correct.
My guess is that the correct answer is number 2, but I don’t know. [Update: Another TV producer suggests that H2 has been pouring more money into pilots, and $600,000 is in the ballpark for new cable pilots.] I’ve requested information about this directly from Committee Films, but I haven’t heard back from them as of press time. I will update this entry when and if Committee responds.
With that, I hope to be done with talking about this for a good long while.
Update: A commentator in another thread pointed to a discrepancy in filming that raised an issue: The production documents state that filming on the pilot began on June 26, 2012, but episode 6, on Mystery Hill, states that it was filmed June 20, 2012, to capture the summer solstice. These numbers don't add up, implying that either the submitted production date was wrong, the pilot was somehow filmed after the rest of the series, or (most likely) the episodes were filmed all together, in part before the official production start date. If true, this would mean that the submitted budget likely included expenses shared across multiple episodes but accounted for only as part of the pilot, filmed apparently after other episodes, highly unusual for a "pilot."
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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