How Much are TV Stars Actually Paid?

Sofia Vergara

TV star salaries are often in the headlines. Some people feel they’re paid far too much and that the networks should prioritize other kinds of investment, such as developing new content. Other people feel that high earnings are a just reward for all the joy they bring to their fans, and a way of letting them know how much they are appreciated. Many people dream of stardom, in part because they would love to make their fortunes like this, and there’s no doubt the money adds to the mystique that keeps show business exciting. But exactly how much are they paid, and who earns the most?

The top earners

The top earners in the industry may be surprising – they’re not always the names people expect to hear. Fame and money don’t always amount to the same thing. It’s a bit tricky to compare salaries directly because earning patterns vary a great deal, but these five received the highest salaries per episode:

  • Charlie Sheen – $1.8m for Two and a Half Men
  • Ray Romano – $1.7m for Everybody Loves Raymond
  • Kelsey Grammer – $1.6m for Frasier
  • Tim Allen – $1.25m for Home Improvement
  • Jerry Seinfeld – over $1m (the exact figure is unknown) for Seinfeld
  • Matt Lauer – $21m for Today

Although there are no women on that list, several women have been paid $1m per episode: Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox and Lisa Kudrow for Friends, Helen Hunt for Mad About You and Kaley Cuoco for The Big Bang Theory.

Women do better as presenters of news and gossip. The annual salaries are high, with the following people at the top of the entertainment news gossip sector:

  • Judith Sheindlin – $47m for Judge Judy
  • Katie Couric – $15m for CBS Evening News
  • Meredith Vieira – $15m for Today
  • Barbara Walters – $13m for The View

How stars make money

TV stars don’t just make money from performing in the shows Americans love. They are also paid to appear in commercials and endorsements, and many do other promotional work – everything from appearing in music videos and voicing video games to opening supermarkets and making guest appearances at sport events. This may sound like small stuff compared to TV but it can actually be very lucrative and, importantly, it can fill in the gaps between shows, helping them to avoid periods of unemployment.

Lower level salaries

That’s what it’s like at the top, but what about those lower down the ladder to stardom? Most actors and presenters start out poor because they can only get occasional work, which often leaves them with debts to pay off after they achieve success. The average news anchor earns $63,500 a year but starting salaries can be a lot lower – not to mention the salaries of the reporters you only see for five minutes at a time as they present individual stories. Cable show leads rarely earn more than $75,000, which might sound pretty good, but it usually takes a decade or more of work to get into that position and co-stars earn considerably less. Things are better with the big networks, where some stars manage to pull in as much as $125,000 even when they’re just starting out – as long as they demonstrate the ability to give audiences what they want.

What the high wages account for

As well as helping stars pay off debts they may have accrued when starting out, TV salaries take into account the fact that stars can fall as well as rise. Few feel they are guaranteed ongoing popularity, so they need to make enough to put some money by in case their earnings suddenly drop. Even big stars are faced with the problem that work is irregular, especially if they don’t have their own shows, so high earnings per show also have to account for all the time when they’re not working or when they’re preparing for particular performances.

Why are top stars paid so much? The answer is simple – they increase the money a show makes by so much that they’re worth it. But stars can get too big for their boots and the recent trend in killing off major characters in popular shows (thanks in large part to Game of Thrones) means actors need to be careful, while presenters are well aware that new stars are always rising and they can never be 100% certain of not being replaced. Stardom is no guarantee of riches and it’s certainly not a secure job, but a lucky few do very well indeed.

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