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Helen Hunt and Paul Riser get a raise

Helen Hunt and Paul Riser get a raise — The ”Mad About You” stars are the latest examples of TV’s upward spiraling salaries

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In 1996, six young upstarts on a hit sitcom demanded a hefty raise — $100,000 per episode, more than double their salary. The actors weren’t stupid: Their network was raking in big ad bucks, and the studio was guaranteed hundreds of millions in reruns. Figuring the show wouldn’t work without them, they threatened to walk. The TV industry reared up in alarm; newspapers debated the actors’ audacity; network execs threw up their hands in where-will-it-end disbelief. ”There’s a virus infecting the industry,” fumed Law & Order exec producer Dick Wolf.

The show was NBC’s Friends, the stars got their raises, and as Mr. Wolf knows, the infection has spread. Since then, Tim Allen’s Home Improvement paycheck has jumped from $200,000 to $1.25 million per episode, and Seinfeld’s supporting cast negotiated a high-profile $600,000 each. Last month, two more stars joined the multimillionaires’ club: Mad About You‘s Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt renewed their contracts for $1 million per episode (that’s a $750,000 raise for both).

In light of all this, the Friends must regard their raises as chump change. Considering their show averages 24 million viewers weekly and will be even more critical to NBC’s Thursday lineup after Seinfeld folds, would you blame them for playing hardball again? Even Kelsey Grammer’s comparatively measly $250,000 per Frasier episode is looking bargain-basement.

NBC is too successful to merit pity, but at least the Peacock’s competitors can relate. The writing is on the wall for the Big Four: Paychecks will keep rising, which, in turn, will inflate production costs. ”It’s out of control, and we’re all responsible,” says one studio president. ”It’s time for a wake-up call.” Adds another studio exec: ”Everyone gets this sense of entitlement…regardless of where their show is in the ratings. When one star gets a huge deal, it impacts every other piece of business in town.”

In NBC’s case, the impact is enormous. Thanks to Hunt and Reiser’s windfall, license fees (what the net pays Columbia TriStar for each Mad episode) will rise 100 percent, to about $3 million per episode — and that’s on top of the $13 million the net will pay Warner Bros. for each new installment of ER.

But Mad About You is no ER, Seinfeld, or even Friends. The sitcom’s never been a megahit, and now its numbers are on the decline. ”It’s insane,” says a still-steaming Wolf. ”Forty-four million [Hunt and Reiser’s total take for next season] for the actors on a 15-share show? It’s a dangerous era in terms of salaries.”

Dangerous — or about time? During its six-year run, Mad‘s ratings were solid enough to earn NBC and Columbia TriStar hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s also a known quantity, which, in an erratic programming universe, appeals to advertisers. So NBC is paying for a certain amount of security and, in a sense, offering a deserved farewell gift, since next season will be Mad‘s last. Both stars have worked hard for the money, and Hunt and her new Oscar bring a cachet that NBC is already happily capitalizing on.