Earnings And Ratings: The Money In American Television

How do television personalities become wealthy in their chosen field? Well as the song says, their “moon has to be in the seventh house”. They have to strike while their rating irons are hot. Usually the opportunity arises when the program they’re on is arousing ratings success for one, and when their personal barometer is reading in the red-hot zone for another. Having it written into their contract that they will share in the profits of Off-network syndication, (the sale of the rights to broadcast programs to multiple stations without going through any of the “big 3 networks”) is the ultimate solution to this issue. If they are unknown, they must become stellar in order to demand a piece of that, “syndie pie.” In the television industry this is the golden ticket.

Let’s examine some of the technical, “skinny” on this. Off-network syndication involves the licensing of a program that was originally run on network television or in some cases what is termed “first-run syndication”. These are sometimes found in stations that are affiliated with smaller networks like Fox for instance, because these networks broadcast an hour before what is considered “prime time” network programming than then ABC, CBS or NBC (again the “big 3 networks”.) This usually occurs when a program has built up around 4 seasons worth of episodes, as that kind of success can cover production costs and thus turn a tidy profit. Sadly in the early years of TV, so many stars were cheated out of their royalties. As an example, the actors of the original Superman series were granted syndication profits in their contracts. However some rather unscrupulous entertainment business executives found a way to cheat them out of these royalties when the show was sold into syndication.

If we take a look at the top 10 most popular American TV shows of all time, everyone of them is still on the air somewhere in this country today:

Top 10 most popular American TV Shows of All Time

1. Seinfeld (First run: NBC, 1989-1998)2. I Love Lucy (First run: CBS, 1951–1957)3. The Honeymooners (First run: CBS, 1955–1956)4. All in the Family (First run: CBS, 1971–1979)5. The Sopranos (First run: HBO, 1999–2007)6. 60 Minutes (First run: CBS, 1968— )7. The Late Show with David Letterman (First run: CBS, 1993— )8. The Simpsons (First run: FOX, 1989— )9. The Andy Griffith Show (First run: CBS, 1960–1968)10. Saturday Night Live (First run: NBC, 1975— )

The television industry can really say a big thank you to the world of feature-films for helping to create what is currently a buyers’ market for them. Filmmakers and movie studios are now driven by big-budget action heroes and thriller flicks as these do well internationally. This leaves little work for the thespians that made their bread and butter in genre films, or romantic comedies and family fare. Many network executives feel that more and more of that talent is coming into television and that this pushes the price of television personalities down. According to some talent managers, a tough economic climate and lower ratings have also given TV executives the ability and nerve to say they have no more money to pay and to hold firmly to this.

The adult stars of the wildly popular and recently off-network syndicated sitcom, Modern Family, in a united effort (there is always strength in numbers) managed to renew their contracts on new production with raises that more than doubled their salaries per each episode.  Of course  the show is a huge hit and so they had the leverage to do this. As one network entertainment president remarked that because of the show’s popularity “all bets are off” so these actors had the power to get what they wanted – more money. The production company, 20th Century Fox Television stands to make a tidy sum from the off-network syndicated reruns of this hit ABC comedy. USA Network alone already committed to pay $1.5 million per episode for the show.Studio executives believe that this recent brief standoff between the Modern Family actors and Fox was simply a standard renegotiation tactic and will have no bearing on actor pay scales for new shows going forward. I think this will happen every time, if a show ranks in ratings and popularity the way Modern Family does.

Reality television fares very well of late and networks are paying more and more for this genre. Howard Stern managed to pick up $15 million to join the cast of America’s Got Talent. Though she has since left the fold, Mariah Carey was to be paid around $17 million to join American Idol. In comparison to the known challenges of the music business, taking a seat at the judges’ table does seem a very lucrative way for a recording artist to keep themselves in the public eye and it does seem a smart move in my book.

If a television personality has the clout and their show has the ratings the salaries they are paid per season, per each episode or as the following lists indicate per year are simply phenomenal. Taking them by category let’s look at some numbers, as compiled by TV Guide:

Drama (pay per episode)Mark Harmon (NCIS): $500,000Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy): $350,000Kevin Bacon (The Following): $175,000Lucy Liu (Elementary): $125,000

Comedy (per episode)Ashton Kutcher (Two and a Half Men): $700,000Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory): $300,000Modern Family Adult Cast: $175,000 eachLea Michele (Glee): $75,000

Late Night (pay per year)David Letterman: $28 millionJay Leno: $25 millionJon Stewart: $16 millionCraig Ferguson: $8 millionChelsea Handler: $8 million

Daytime/Syndication (per year)Judy Sheindlin (Judge Judy): $45 millionJoe Brown (Judge Joe Brown): $20 millionKelly Ripa (Live! With Kelly): $20 millionSherri Shepherd (The View): $1.5 million

Reality (pay per season or per episode)Mariah Carey (American Idol): $17 million per seasonHoward Stern (America's Got Talent): $15 million per seasonPauly DelVecchio (Jersey Shore): $175,000 per episodeBetty White (Off Their Rockers): $50,000 per episodeLandry Family (Swamp People): $25,000 per episode

News (per year)Matt Lauer (Today): $21.5 millionBill O'Reilly (The O'Reilly Factor): $15 millionDiane Sawyer (ABC World News): $12 millionAnderson Cooper (Anderson Cooper 360 and Anderson Live): $11 millionRobin Meade (HLN anchor): $750,000

Obviously it goes without saying that a savvy television personality must educate themselves to all of the ins and outs of this process. They must learn and know when to hold and when to fold during contract negotiation or renegotiation. There is no cookie-cutter solution to getting there. It is basically having all factors coming together at the same time. If all the elements are in proper alignment it puts them in the driver’s seat. Not all make it there, but many do and the examples are endless as evidenced in the salary examples I’ve listed above.

So there you have it. I’m fairly certain that the likes of Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman and maybe even Homer Simpson smiled broadly all the way to the bank enjoying the fruits of their labor. For once you become successful enough to take the driver’s seat who wouldn’t put the pedal to the metal? If their contracts included a portion of the Off-network syndication rights and they’re paid the kind of salary a successful program seemingly demands then television is a land of plenty and the pathway to easy street is golden-paved and free of ruts in the road. Life on the small screen can be very good.

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