Variety has released its annual compendium of salary estimates for TV’s top earners and notable personalities, a treasure trove of telling comparisons and depressing reminders of how much more Kaley Cuoco can command for bending her pinkie than most of us can for a year’s worth of labor. (The list arrives the same week as Forbes’s roundup of highest paid actors and actresses, which is a testament to how much really famous movie stars can still demand from studios.) Variety’s TV methodology is kept understandably opaque apart from a note that “In some cases, the per episode fees reflect additional compensation for [performers’] work as producers or for their profit participation stakes.” In other words: We’ve done our homework, and this list reflects real take-home pay rather than just baseline per-episode fees.
Nonetheless, there’s plenty of fodder for envy/admiration/frustration in this bare-bones rundown. Recorded here for posterity are some of our initial takeaways, starting with …
Movie Stars Make Movie-Star Money No Matter Where They Are
The top earner in all of dramatic scripted television isn’t the face of CBS’s flagship hourlong program (though Mark Harmon of NCIS does make a cool $525,000 per installment, coming in second.) Instead, the pound-for-pound earnings leader is the top-billed actor on a show that doesn’t even have a name yet: Robert De Niro, bringing in $775,000 per episode for an upcoming David O. Russell–helmed, Julianne Moore–costarring limited series that was sold to Amazon late last year. For context, that’s more than the $750,000 fee Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel each secured for 2016’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, though it’s interestingly less than Variety’s initial speculative figure of $850,000.
Robert De Niro is Robert De Niro, but he’s also not alone: As prestige arbiters like Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures (the force behind the Coen brothers’ just-announced Netflix series) start to shoulder their way into TV and new players like Apple and the nascent Paramount Network promise to pump even more money into a marketplace already flooded by the likes of Amazon and Netflix, big names will continue to garner big paydays. Paramount even makes an appearance slightly lower down the list with Kevin Costner, who’s being compensated $500,000 per episode of Yellowstone, the Taylor Sheridan–created Western set to debut in January 2018.
Wait, Donald Glover Made Only $75,000 Per Episode for the First Season of Atlanta?
That figure’s a mere fraction of the $900,000 fee brought in by the core cast of The Big Bang Theory, everybody’s favorite punching bag/scapegoat/CBS multicam poster child. (Also keep in mind that The Big Bang Theory puts out north of 20 episodes per season to Atlanta’s 10, making the total-earnings differential even steeper.) But Glover’s $75,000 is also far less than either lead of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ($150,000 per episode for Ellie Kemper and $90,000 for Tituss Burgess), both actors who aren’t also the creator, producer, and sometimes-director of their own personal auteur series.
The explanation here is most likely FX’s budget-for-creative-freedom trade-off, a precedent set when the network gave Louis C.K. complete control over Louie in exchange for operating it on a shoestring production cost. C.K.’s producing partners, Zach Galifianakis and Pamela Adlon, of the similarly uncompromising Baskets and Better Things, are notably absent from the list, but Galifianakis presumably isn’t making Hangover money for the kind of sensitive absurdism that puts Louie Anderson in drag and refuses to play it for laughs. Most importantly, though, Atlanta was a freshman gamble in its first year. As a bona fide phenomenon, a sophomore-year level-up wouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Daytime TV Is Where the Real Power (and Money) Is
For all the attention we pay to the still-raging late-night wars, none of the top three earners in unscripted television have programs that air after 11, or even in prime time. Ellen DeGeneres, Judge Judy, and Matt Lauer’s Today show are all over and done with by the late afternoon—and their respective $50 million, $47 million, and $25 million annual salaries positively dwarf their colleagues at the other end of the schedule. (It’s also unclear whether the Judge Judy figure includes the stupendous deal CBS just made for the rights to her back catalog.) Jimmy Fallon makes approximately $16 million a year, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert $15 million; James Corden isn’t on the list, though his compensation is presumably comparable to that of his peers’. For all the condescension morning and daytime shows might earn for their association with middle America, they’re enormously profitable and influential, and their hosts are paid accordingly.
Some People Are Very, Very Underpaid—but Won’t Be for Long
Claire Foy’s performance in the first season of The Crown got her an Emmy nomination and helped garner one for the series as a whole. Ditto for the cast of This Is Us, which has the additional credit of being a rare ratings bonanza, and therefore moneymaker, for NBC. And yet no actor on either show earns a per-episode salary in the six figures: Foy, in keeping with British TV’s lower pay rate, makes $40,000 per chapter, while Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore top out the This Is Us crew with $85,000 per episode (more than double their lesser-known costar Chrissy Metz, whose take-home matches Foy’s). To put that in perspective, Foy made less for an entire season of a show whose total budget broke into the hundreds of millions of dollars than Lena Headey did for a single episode of Game of Thrones ($500,000).
If The Crown proceeds in its plan to dedicate each of its possible six seasons to a single decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Foy has only about a year left in her time there. For This Is Us, however, those numbers are likely to multiply significantly the next time contracts are up for negotiation. (In fact, certain gossip sites report the cast is already attempting to put their newfound leverage to use.) With proven earning power come marked-up earnings; expect to find Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown much higher up on the 2018 version of this list.