Question: A friend of mine and I were talking about how much money stars and show creators make these days and I was amazed at how the stars of Friends are getting $1 million an episode. He said that's nothing compared to what you can make in syndication. How does that work? And isn't that why Bill Cosby's so rich? — Phil H., Storrs, Conn.
In a word? Yes. And while you have to remember that Cosby wasn't exactly poor by mere mortal standards when The Cosby Show first hit NBC's schedule in the fall of 1984, he walked away with a much fatter wallet.
There are a lot of ways to make money in this business and starring on a hit show for straight pay is one of them. (Just ask Frasier's Kelsey Grammer, who makes $1.6 million an episode.) But the real money is in syndication; if you're the star of a mega-hit series, and even if you don't technically own a piece of your show, by the time you renegotiate your contract you'll probably get a piece of the syndication pie just to keep you happy.
Here's the simple picture: When a series airs on a network and earns big ratings, the network is able to sell commercial time on it for large sums of money because it can guarantee advertisers that a certain number of people within a certain demographic (preferably a younger one, which Madison Avenue sees as being more likely to be swayed by ads) will see a given spot. After there are enough episodes in the can to sell, whoever distributes a show (in The Cosby Show's case it's Viacom, which signed a deal with producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner) then goes to TV stations in each market around the country and offers to sell them a package of episodes to rerun. (Ever wonder why, say, your local Fox affiliate is showing Drew Carey reruns at 7:30 pm when that's an ABC show? That's why — your local affiliate bought the syndicated package.) And those fees add up to very serious money.
How serious? In 1986, Viacom went around the country with The Cosby Show, which by that time was a monster hit, and told stations, essentially, "You're going to pay us a ton of green for this because if you don't, your competitor across town will and they're going to kill you at 7 pm." The end result of that campaign was that in order to show five Cosby reruns a week, 172 local stations paid a combined total of close to $4 million per episode, nearly three times the amount any previous sitcom had ever brought in. Two thirds of the $500 million total went to Carsey and Werner, and about $166 million of that went to Cosby himself.
Keep in mind that was just the first batch of episodes. All in all, it's estimated that the gross syndication take from The Cosby Show topped $800 million, a record broken by Seinfeld, which will have earned more than $2 billion by the time its syndication lifespan runs out. (In 1998, according to Forbes magazine, Jerry Seinfeld pulled down $267 million, beating Seinfeld co-creator Larry David's mere $242 million. Now you know why Seinfeld can afford to gut and remodel an entire building in Manhattan for his Porsche collection.)
The funny thing is, of course, that nobody, not even Cosby himself, could've predicted the kind of phenomenon his show would become. "If the series doesn't make it, he'll still be fine," one Cosby Show staff member told TV Guide in 1984, just after it launched. "He's got Jell-O and his nightclub act."
The star himself just hoped to inject a little more life into a sitcom genre that was being written off by industry pundits in those days. "I want to show a family like the kind I know: children who are almost a pain in the neck, and parents who aren't far behind," Cosby said. "A husband and wife who have their moments of love, smiles, anger, of not really liking each other, and it's sort of real."
That he did. And even if many thought The Cosby Show lost some of its humor over the years and went to the "very special episode" well too many times in the latter half of its run, Cosby didn't mind. He was laughing all the way to the bank.