A lot of people think TV is better than movies these days. For many actors, it certainly pays better. Unless you're able to play a superhero, it's tough to get super-rich from big-screen work, so more actors are moving to series TV. The expanded talent pool has given networks and studios extra leverage in negotiating salaries. "There are so few gigantic stars in features and the rest are not making any money," says one industry executive familiar with this year's deal-making. "That's helpful."
The general rule across the TV business is to keep lead performers on new network prime-time series to $125,000 an episode. (Cable networks are going as high as $150,000.) That's not Charlie Sheen money, but it's not bad. "Times that by 22, [and] you can maintain a pretty good lifestyle based on what you were making in features but now you're not," the executive says.
But with long-running top shows getting more expensive as they get older, studios are serious about trimming budgets in the face of declining ratings. House lost Lisa Edelstein, and Chris Meloni is gone from Law & Order: SVU largely because of costs. Ted Danson will earn $225,000 an episode to join CSI— a savings from Laurence Fishburne's $350,000. Warner Bros.' Ashton Kutcher is now the highest-paid sitcom actor at $700,000 per episode — far less than Sheen's take of $1.2 million. Whether that's a bargain won't be known until the ratings come in after the show's premiere.
Network news divisions and talk- show producers are also trying to hold down costs. After Katie Couric left the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley started at under a third of her $15 million a year. Regis Philbin is leaving Live! With Regis and Kelly instead of taking a cut in his $15 million salary. And Piers Morgan is getting less than a third of what Larry King earned during his final year in CNN's prime-time lineup.
But some stars are able to strike while the iron is hot. The cast of The Big Bang Theory saw their salaries grow as their show generated syndication deals. And Current TV is trying to enter the cable big leagues with Keith Olbermann, giving him $10 million a year and an equity stake in the network. Time Warner, meanwhile, tied up Anderson Cooper with a new talk show and a new deal at CNN that pays him around $11 million a year. That should keep him in tight black T-shirts for a long time.
For the complete list of TV's biggest salaries ranging from drama, comedy, late night and reality, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, August 11!