They don’t call her The Closer for nothing. In mid-January, Kyra Sedgwick locked in a salary of roughly $250,000 per episode for her work on the two-year-old cable cop drama. During the negotiations, she undoubtedly convinced TNT that she — not those interminable ER reruns — was responsible for turning the network into a major player. But even Sedgwick didn’t realize the extent of her power. Once news of her payday hit The Hollywood Reporter, a flurry of actresses, including the leads of series on Showtime and The CW, asked: ”If Kyra can make that much, why can’t I?”
They have a point. As much as TV studios (who produce the shows) and their network partners (who air them) whine about skyrocketing costs, they are still more than willing to break the bank to lure and retain their top echelon of stars. ABC Television Studio just promised to pay Scrubs‘ Zach Braff a reported $350,000 per episode should his No. 94-ranked show (no, that is not a misprint) return for a seventh season. After a heated negotiation that resulted in NBC and executive producer Dick Wolf threatening to replace them, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit stars Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay gave up their dream of earning north of $600,000 per episode by agreeing to a reported $300,000. That places them among some of TV’s highest-paid actors, including CSI‘s William Petersen (more than $500K per episode, which includes profit participation) and 24‘s Kiefer Sutherland (who as star and executive producer rakes in $400,000 per hour). And most of the cast on Grey’s Anatomy — who aren’t even entitled to pay increases since they’re technically still under contract — will soon be rewarded with raises as high as $125,000 and granted small portions of the show’s profits, a perk once reserved for marquee stars only.
The situation isn’t limited to older series. In what some insiders describe as the ”featurization” of television, studios are mimicking their movie counterparts: They’re offering huge up-front paydays to veteran film and TV actors to ensure big premieres for their new shows and robust sales in the overseas market. This season, ABC Television Studio is believed to have spent in excess of $800,000 on cast salaries for Brothers & Sisters — including $150,000 or so per episode for Calista Flockhart and about $100,000 for Sally Field. And it’s expected to shell out something similar for a Grey’s spin-off featuring Kate Walsh (Addison). The comely redhead, as well as costars Amy Brenneman, Tim Daly, and Taye Diggs, will earn anywhere from $100K to $125K per episode, according to estimates.
Other big paydays for fall: Fox will hand Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton between $150,000 and $275,000 per episode to star in the comedy Action News; CBS is giving Marisa Tomei $175,000 to play an opinionated writer in a sitcom called The Rich Inner Life of Penelope Cloud; and even American Pie‘s Jason Biggs will earn either $100,000 or $200,000 (depending on whom you talk to) for CBS’ single-camera comedy I’m in Hell. ”Paying $100,000 used to be Oh, my God, they are getting $100,000!” says one network chief. ”Now it’s commonplace. It just blows my mind.” Adds another top network suit, ”It becomes like baseball: There are the super-high-paid players and then there are the low ones. There are very few in between. You pay somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000 for a very inexperienced actor. Then it pops up to $100,000, $125,000, even $175,000 for the super-duper guys.”
And just like the Yankees, the studios and networks — as much as they kick and scream publicly — often have to pay up. The initial salary request is ”always three steps beyond ridiculous,” says Law & Order‘s Wolf. However, the top actors usually get close to what they want because they’re secure in the knowledge that more and more outlets are recruiting from the same dwindling talent pool. Though TNT, USA, and FX — which run series in smaller increments — can dangle the carrot of shorter production schedules, they also have to pay six figures if they want to lure names like Sedgwick and Glenn Close (who, after doing a stint on The Shield, will star in a legal drama for FX later this year). ”When The Shield was launched [in 2002], there were, like, eight original series premiering on basic cable,” says FX Networks president John Landgraf. ”This year there’ll be a few dozen. I think when you see pay escalating, it’s because of the volume of output.”
So when an actor with any kind of chops indicates an interest in doing television, the networks throw money at her like she’s the next Julia Roberts. This year’s prize was Miranda Otto (ring a bell? Check your Lord of the Rings DVD for Eowyn) who’s getting $80,000 an episode to star in ABC’s female-executive dramedy Cashmere Mafia, from Darren Star. ”We’re a bunch of knuckleheads at the studios and the networks. We do this to ourselves,” admits one TV studio head. ”The worst deals that we make are made during pilot season. The stakes are very high, so a successful show is incredibly important.” By casting well-known personalities like Peter Krause and Donald Sutherland in the family drama Dirty Sexy Money (ABC), or LL Cool J as a cop in The Man (CBS), the networks drum up excitement, which can translate into advertising dollars and a strong debut. (Bette Midler, Geena Davis, and Ray Liotta can testify that this strategy doesn’t always work.) Then there are lucrative foreign sales to consider: While procedural reruns are more in vogue domestically, serialized dramas like Desperate Housewives fetch $2 million per episode in Europe.
The well will eventually run dry, warns the network chief. ”Everybody is going to have to say ‘We can’t do this anymore,”’ he says. ”And when that happens, the market will shift because there won’t be anyone paying those kinds of dollars. But I don’t see that happening for a few years.” For now, the studios have come up with creative ways to balance their portfolio of programs. Sony Pictures Television and CBS Paramount Network Television are investing in European (in other words, cheap) actors to star in their pilots, like Britain’s Lloyd Owen (Miss Potter) for the casino dramedy Viva Laughlin. There’s also a continued drive to develop high-concept ensemble shows that don’t require household names. Some of the best television — like Grey’s and Heroes — began with mostly no-name actors who each earned $50,000 or less. And if those measures don’t work, there’s always good old-fashioned humiliation. Nothing knocks the wind out of a blustery actor more than a network going public with her demands. After a report that Katherine Heigl had dropped out of salary renegotiations because ”the studio doesn’t value her as much as her costars,” ABC Television Studio fired back, insisting the Grey’s actress had been offered a substantial raise while pointing out that Heigl was still under contract.
Lost in all of this is what, if any, effect a salary controversy could have on an actor’s popularity. ”I definitely think it can color fans’ connection to the actor when they know that an actor’s episodic fee is equal to five years of their salary,” says Wolf. Echoes The Office star Steve Carell, who takes home a reported $175,000 per episode: ”You don’t want people thinking you’re a pampered jerk. Salaries can be ridiculous. On the other hand, a lot of people are making a lot of money off of these shows.” Indeed. Those $1 million-per-episode salaries that were awarded to the Friends cast didn’t seem so ridiculous once word got out just how much the show’s home studio, Warner Bros. TV, would pocket off the reruns (an estimated $1 billion…and counting). That’s why we’ll probably never see someone like James Gandolfini, who earns a reported $800,000 per episode for The Sopranos, throw a pity party for HBO. ”All I can say,” quips the man famous for playing a notoriously hard-bargaining Mob boss, ”is they wouldn’t pay it if they ain’t makin’ it.”