TV’s Top Paychecks: The Ka-Chings That Make Us Go ‘Hmm’

Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Sheen and Kate Gosselin (Christopher Polk/John M. Heller/Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Sheen and Kate Gosselin (Christopher Polk/John M. Heller/Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images

Who makes the most money on TV? You might think you know, but some of the industry’s top earners will surprise you.

Certainly, you can guess the identity of TV’s highest-paid personality – it’s Oprah Winfrey, of course. She draws an estimated $315 million annually, far and away the most money of anyone currently appearing on TV (or probably ever), according to an eye-opening new report in TV Guide Magazine.

But look who’s in second place. It’s not Leno or Letterman or Seacrest or Couric – it’s none other than Judge Judy (aka Judy Sheindlin), who earns $45 million a year for her syndicated court show, demonstrating once again that the syndication business (where Oprah makes her fortune) is the place to be for bagging boffo paychecks.

PHOTOS: The Highest Earning Stars!

What else do we learn from TV Guide Magazine’s list? Let’s take a look:

Top Dog In TV News: Nowadays it’s the ‘Today’s Matt Lauer, of all people. He’s making $16 million-plus a year, more than CBS’ Katie Couric ($15 million), NBC’s Brian Williams ($12.5 million), ABC’s Diane Sawyer ($12 million) or Lauer’s own co-host, Meredith Vieira ($11 million).

The Dough Spin Zone: Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly is making $10 million a year, while MSNBC rival Keith Olbermann pulls $7 million – a tie with Fox News anchor Shepherd Smith. Ouch!

Two-And-A-Half Times The Money: That’s just about how much more Charlie Sheen ($1.25 million) earns per episode of ‘Two And a Half Men’ than his co-star, Jon Cryer ($550,000). And “half” man Angus T. Jones? He earns less than half of Cryer’s salary – $225,000 per show.

Cable? Broadcast? It Makes No Difference Anymore: Cable’s top stars are pulling salaries on par with network stars. Examples: Kyra Sedgwick of TNT’s ‘The Closer’ and Denis Leary of FX’s ‘Rescue Me’ are cable’s top earners in the drama category, each making $350,000 per episode. How does that stack up to network TV? Laurence Fishburne of CBS’ ‘CSI’ collects the same salary, even though his show draws far more viewers than either of the cable shows. (Keep in mind, though, cable shows produce fewer episodes per season – usually around 13 – than broadcast ‘s typical 22). And broadcast still leads the category in per-episode pay: ‘House’s Hugh Laurie is top dog with $400,000-plus per show.

Quality Doesn’t Necessarily Pay: ‘Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is making $100,000 per episode as the star of TV’s most critically acclaimed show. Jason Lee, by contrast, merits $125,000 per episode for TNT’s ‘Memphis Beat.’ But the critical acclaim for him? Um, not so much.

Ratings Don’t Necessarily Pay, Either: William Shatner, the star of the as-yet untested CBS sitcom ‘$#*! My Dad Says,’ commands $150,000 per episode. Meanwhile, Jane Lynch, who everybody loves on the überhit ‘Glee,’ gets $50,000 per episode, and Jim Parsons, a lead on CBS’s ‘Big Bang Theory’ – one of TV’s most watched sitcoms – earns $40,000. Parsons, along with costars Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco, however, recently bucked for – and is likely to reap – a hefty bump in pay.

Reality Check!: Kate Gosselin is paid $250,000 per episode for ‘Kate Plus 8’ on TLC. Maybe she has to split the money with her eight kids – but still!

Certainly, TV’s salaries are all over the place – stars of high-rated shows making less than cast members in lower-rated ones, cable stars pulling down more money per episode than their network counterparts, reality stars and court-show judges raking in unimaginable piles of money. It makes you wonder how these paydays are determined. Popularity? Potential ratings? Good looks? Longevity?

Of course, determining the relative fairness of salaries in the five figures might be a non-issue to most of us because no matter how you slice it, the money’s great. A flush $40,000 per each of 22 episodes? How can anyone complain about that? What do you think TV salaries should be based on?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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