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If Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard worked as a TV actress today, her famous line would be: "I am big. It's the paychecks that got small."
Networks and studios have continued to take a hard line on holding down salaries, based on TV Guide Magazine's annual survey drawn from conversations with agents, network executives and studio heads. Rare is the lead actor who can enter a new series earning more than $125,000 an episode. The exceptions are those with a ratings track record of having a major hit show (Matthew Perry) or a significant career in feature films (Kevin Bacon).
Premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime can go higher with series that produce only 13 episodes a year. But newcomers to shows with ensemble casts earn around $30,000 or less per episode. Established mid-level actors are seeing lower rates as well. "The third role down, there are no qualms in sending out offers that are way below an actor's price quotes," one agent notes. "The actor who made $75,000 a couple of years ago is now being offered $50,000 or $60,000."
The television industry can thank the feature-film business for creating the current buyers' market. Movie studios are now driven by big-budget action thrillers that play well internationally, leaving little work for actors who made their living in genre movies, romantic comedies and family films. "Theatrical talent is coming into television, and that's pushing the price of television people down," says one network president. A tough economic climate — and smaller ratings — has also given TV executives the courage to say no. "They say we have no money and they hold firm," according to one talent manager.
So how can the stars of Modern Family be getting raises that more than double their salaries? "When you've got a hit show, all bets are off," says one network entertainment president. The cast was united in seeking a share of the fortune the show's studio, 20th Century Fox Television, stands to make from syndicated reruns of the hit ABC comedy (USA Network is already committed to $1.5 million per episode). But executives believe the recent brief standoff was a standard renegotiation for a successful series and will have no effect on actor pay scales for new shows going forward.
Networks are paying more on the reality side, where major names are being sought to create buzz and ratings. Howard Stern picked up $15 million to join America's Got Talent. Mariah Carey will get around $17 million to join American Idol. Compared to the challenges of the music business, a seat at the judges' table seems a lucrative way for recording artists looking to keep up their public profiles. "You have to do a lot of touring and sell a lot of downloads to make the money you used to make," says Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. Stars like Carey don't come cheap, but reality competition shows are among the most profitable in prime time. Says Reilly, "If bringing some of the biggest names in the business generates a new dynamic and some viewing interest, that's a smart investment."
Check out highlights from each category below. For the complete lists, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine on newsstands Thursday, August 9!
Drama (per episode)
Mark Harmon (NCIS): $500,000
Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy): $350,000
Kevin Bacon (The Following): $175,000
Lucy Liu (Elementary): $125,000
Stephen Amell (Arrow): $30,000
Comedy (per episode)
Ashton Kutcher (Two and a Half Men): $700,000
Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory): $300,000
Modern Family Adult Cast: $175,000 each
Lea Michele (Glee): $75,000
Crystal the Monkey (Animal Practice): $12,000