Whether it falls under biblical coveting, low-class jealousy, or sophomoric whining about life being unfair, most everyone is simultaneously amazed and angry about the salaries famous people earn. From professional athletes to pop stars with questionable talent to gifted singers and actors, their piece of the pie just seems gluttonous compared to the tiny slices most people live on.
TV Guide magazine recently released their annual list of the biggest money makers of the not-so-small-anymore screen. From horror to comedy, drama, and fantasy, every category has some huge wage earners. Comedy and drama actors get paid per episode, with comedy actors making way more per show than their dramatic counterparts. News anchors, daytime syndication stars and late night TV hosts all get paid by the year, and reality show stars are paid per season.
You may not ever agree on the equity of TV star paychecks but it’s hard not to admire their agents or lawyers or whoever negotiates these deals, which often include ongoing income from profit-sharing and/or syndication. And keep in mind that while no one’s job is really secure, nothing is more fleeting than a role that may be your first – and last – opportunity to make a living that may have to sustain you and your family for a lifetime.
Until very recently, Ashton Kutcher was the highest paid comedy actor on TV, pulling in $750K per episode for Two and a Half Men. After tense negotiations over the past few weeks, The Big Bang Theory’s lead actors Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco surpassed Kutcher, each earning $1 million per episode for the upcoming season. Kutcher’s co-star Jon Cryer makes $650K per show. Comedic salaries dive to $300K per episode after that, with no one in between, for The Simpsons actors Nancy Cartwright, Dan Castellaneta Julie Kavner and Yeardley Smith. Tim Allen makes $250K for each episode of Last Man Standing as does Patricia Heaton for The Middle and Amy Poehler for Parks and Recreation. After that, salaries plummet all the way down to the low five figures, including a paltry $75K for the two other females on The Big Bang Theory; the two other guys make $100K per episode. The show didn’t win the Emmy for Best Comedy last night (Modern Family won again) but Parsons snagged the Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Emmy again, somewhat justifying his enormous paycheck. Ty Burrell, who earns a measly $190K per episode of Modern Family last night, was honored as the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.
Drama’s Big Earners
Based on the comparatively low pay dramatic actors receive, the old adage that comedy is twice as hard as drama to pull off must be true. Mark Harmon tops the list earning $525K per episode of NCIS. Kevin Spacey isn’t far behind, earning $500K per show on Netflix’s breakout hit House of Cards. Mariska Hargitay is the highest paid female actor on TV, making $400K per episode of Law & Order: SVU, with Ellen Pompeo not far behind for her starring role on Grey’s Anatomy, which pays $350K a show. Her co-star Patrick Dempsey makes the same, as does Simon Baker for his lead role on The Mentalist. Jon Hamm takes home $275K for his hard drinking, hard smoking role on Mad Men. International crime fighters and investigators generally earn $25K per episode less than Hamm’s Don Draper. Claire Danes (Homeland), David Boreanaz (Bones), Ted Danson (CSI), Emily Deschanel (Bones) and Michael Weatherley (NCIS) all earn $250K per episode.
Although it might seem daytime shows wouldn’t have the draw of nighttime fare, the players’ annual pay rivals that of many movie stars and sometimes includes a cut of the show’s profits. At the top of the daytime earnings pack where she’s been for many years is Judy Sheindlin. As the presiding force on Judge Judy, she earns $47M a year. Ellen DeGeneres earns between $16M and $20M for her namesake talk show and Kelly Ripa‘s not far behind. Ripa makes between $14M and $20M for co-hosting Live with Kelly and Michael. Pat Sajak‘s wide smile is probably very genuine considering he gets paid $12M a year for hosting Wheel of Fortune and his sidekick Vanna White earns a whopping $8M per annum for electronic letter flipping. Alex Trebek makes between $9M and $10M as host of his brainiac favorite Jeopardy.
Hard News, Big Money
With so many networks competing to be the go-to source for national and international news, the top contenders from a wide range of political standpoint earn impressive yearly salaries for keeping viewers well updated. Today show’s Matt Lauer leads the brigade with a yearly salary between $22M and $25M. Bill O’Reilly is the second highest paid at $$18M for his show, The O’Reilly Factor. Robin Roberts is the highest paid female in the news category, earning $14M a year on Good Morning America. Brian Williams is right on Roberts’ heels, pulling in $13M annually for anchoring NBC Nightly News. Anderson Cooper’s all-encompassing Anderson Cooper 360 earns him $11M a year. Shepard Smith of Shepard Smith Reporting is the last newsperson to score a double digit salary, making $10M annually. After that, the rest of the big names like Rachel Maddow, Scott Pelley, Katy Couric and Bret Baier earn in the single digit millions and CNN‘s Bill Weir and Ronan Farrow of Ronan Farrow Daily each earn less than a million a year.
Late Night Wages
Just a couple of decades ago, insomniacs and nighthawks had only two late night show hosts to choose from on television and as the wee hours of the morning waned, infomercials and often insidious local programming were the only alternatives. But as late night viewing gained popularity, the arena became more crowded and salaries soared. David Letterman, who’s finishing up his final season as the host of The Late Show, earned $20M this year. Talk show host Conan O’Brien earns just a little more than half of that at $14M per year, followed by Jimmy Fallon at $11M, Chelsea Handler and Jimmy Kimmel at $10M each, and Andy Cohen and John Oliver make $2M a year for hosting their late night shows.