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Should TV Actors Really Be Earning So Much?

If video killed the radio star, TV stars sure are making a killing today. Perhaps in keeping with the new gilded age in the US, television stars are making more than ever before, and a roundup of some of the highest-paid stars in television might make you pale, and could certainly make you question your beliefs when it comes to the promotion of the arts in the United States. You also might be surprised by which stars the industry seems to think merit the most financial attention.

Take Mark Harmon, star of CBS powerhouse NCIS, who makes over $500,000 per episode, plus profit participation. In a single season, he’s making enough to buy an LA mansion several times over, and rest assured, he’ll never have to worry about property taxes. While Harmon’s soft-spoken tough guy role might be familiar and beloved to fans, it’s hardly an earthshattering display of acting. Kenneth Branaugh, he is not.

While a $500,000 salary is still absurd, for Kevin Spacey, it might almost be deserved, at least, in this media and salary landscape. That’s what he makes per episode for House of Cards, including his producer’s fee. His tight, restrained acting in the lead role highlights his acting talents, but, more importantly, House of Cards runs with a limited number of episodes each season, focusing on quality over quantity. While he’s still taking home a hefty chunk of change at the end of the season, it’s not quite as grotesque as that being brought home by other stars.

Mariska Hargitay (Law and Order: SVU) is one of the few women on the highest paid list, which raises another issue. As in other industries, many high-ranking women don’t make as much as men, and women make less overall. While luminaries like Mindy Kaling and Kerry Washington rake in a couple million each per season (a remarkable coup for women of colour), leading men still tend to out-perform their female counterparts. Note the difference between actor-producers Spacey ($500,000) and Kaling ($140,000), for example.

Meanwhile, Patrick Dempsey, Michael C. Hall, and Tim Allen all earn substantial sums per episode – even child actor Angus T. Jones earns more than his adult female colleagues. Ashton Kutcher is also a high earner, thanks not only to his current roles but to residuals from That 70s Show. The king of late night, by the way, is John Stewart, who earns approximately $30 million for his work on The Daily Show. Oprah, naturally, tops the list, another rare woman of colour outlier in the rather bleak television compensation landscape.

What do high salaries for TV stars mean, culturally? In the United States, many people seem deeply committed to their television; TVs are one of the largest and most expensive pieces of furniture in the house, for example, and that’s before expensive sound systems are installed to complete the experience. People build up schedules around television, argue passionately about beloved shows over the water cooler the next day, and love television so fervently that they protested when the President of the United States attempted to schedule the State of the Union during a Lost episode. (If only they’d known that he was just trying to spare them a horribly disappointing finale.)

Clearly, people in the US love their TV, and it results in huge profits for the networks — because you can be rest assured that if they’re paying their workers this highly, they’re pocketing even bigger profits. For most workers in the film and television industry, salaries are relatively small, but for those who manage to break through, the payoff can be huge; there’s a reason television stars have massive mansions, multiple homes, and all the luxuries can buy. (‘Fell in love with a TV star…drove me home in her Lexus car…’)

But should we really be paying actors this much? Should we be paying any creators this much? The economy of scale when it comes to compensation in the United States has been set utterly askew by the financial industry and by the nation’s insatiable capitalist greed. When CEOs are making millions annually, why shouldn’t TV stars do the same? This question skirts the larger issue of whether anyone should be making that much money, and, if not, how that money might be better applied.

The US is a country with a huge mythology surrounding money and compensation. It’s a nation obsessed with the idea of fair pay and the notion that people earn what they deserve, and have worked for. This attitude may in part stem from a desire to defend and excuse massive salaries, but it’s also rooted in the bootstrapping ideal that governs thought and culture. If you just tried harder, you’d earn more. You clearly don’t want this badly enough, because you’re not applying yourself.

In the fact of that normative culture, perhaps it’s not surprising to see television stars making huge salaries without a word of protest from fans, many of whom don’t think about the money involved in the production of every single episode. It’s not just the huge salaries for the actors, but also the expenses involved in sets, special effects, and more — and while the workers who support the production of television episodes are unionised and enjoy excellent benefits, including competitive pay, they’re not the ones with the Bel Air mansions and the massive pools.

Why should the workers behind the scenes, who deserve much of the credit for successful productions, get scant recognition and salaries, while the stars receive massive salaries simply because they appear in front of the camera? Should audiences be clamouring for a more reasonable approaching to salarying TV stars, one that distributes funds equitably among all actors and support staff to recognise their work and contributions, as well as experience? Why should Mark Harmon make more than a key grip who’s been in the industry for 40 years? Why should a lighting designer, a key contributor to the look, feel, and mood of a production, make so much less than an actor?