How the heck can you make a career out of the "Real World"?!
December 29, 2005 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Just how much do people make on television? I'm not talking about the big-time tv stars with well-publicized contracts such as network stars like Friends, Oprah, Letterman, Katie Couric, etc., or the many people who get sitcom/series deals on major networks where we can guesstimate how much they are earning to the right order of magnitude. No, I'm asking about all the "little people" who fill my teevee screen. (much more inside)

I find this question fascinating because, as a fairly devoted couch potato, I see plenty of TV where I can't help but wonder just how cheaply the dignity or pride of an individual has been bought. :) Specific individuals would be nice as methods of comparison to give a ballpark estimate. I'd prefer a general resource if one exists to find out what kind of money people make on the considerably- less- than- huge television shows, of all kinds.

For example: before he became filthy rich hosting the highly rated "ABC/Disney Extreme Home Makeover Sears Commercial" with all his tie-in marketing dollars to boot, Ty Pennington was a lowly goofball carpenter on "Trading Spaces". So: how much do the various carpenters and designers and on-camera personalities earn from their regular or in some cases only occasional appearances on the many cable home improvement shows?

Or the Queer Eye fab five- what are people like that banking from their 15-20 episodes a year while the show was hot and now... not so hot? Or other stars of minor cable shows, like hosts of regular programs on TLC, Bravo, HGTV, G4TV, VH1, Spike, etc, etc? Or sitcoms/dramas on north american cable that aren't getting boffo ratings and big-time contracts, like Ricky and Julian on Trailer Park Boys- that show's fantastic, but have they even been able to quit their day jobs in Nova Scotiaville after five seasons of TPB?

We know Jon Stewart makes a couple of million for TDS, and that Chapelle had a huge contract, but how about people like the hosts of various short-lived cheesy game shows/reality shows like "Celebrity Fit or Fat" or "Real World/Road Rules Challenge"? Or for that matter, how about the parade of unemployable famewhores and way-past-their-sell-date barely famous types that are veterans of Viacom "reality" programming? I keep seeing the same people show up, and wonder if they actually make enough money from these shows each year to have it be their annual income, since they clearly aren't holding down real jobs. Are these old Real World cast members making that much from their recurring MTV reality stints that it's worth it, or do they all just take a chance at winning the big prize?

When Steve-O gets his ass bit by a crocodile, or Bam Margera harasses his parents- what is MTV paying them for this privilege? Or take when some D-list celebrity like Peter Brady or Hulk Hogan or Kathy Griffin opens up their life to the tv cameras in the post-Osbournes era: how much are they getting paid to be shown in all their stupidity and venality VH1 or MTV2 or E! TV? How about when non-famous working folks from plastic surgeons and hairdressers to auto mechanics and bail bondsmen that have tv crews invade their home and work for a season- what do you get paid to have your life filmed for disposable tv entertainment?

I understand that people appearing on tv talk shows, or in competitive reality are required to be paid at minimum something like $540 a day, so that when you see the minor comic talking heads on "Best Week Ever", they probably are getting a small but tidy little sum for a single day's work in a studio making pithy or snarky comments. But those who get "lucky" enough to be recurring roles/appearances such as the examples above... just how much (or in some cases, how little) are these people earning?!
posted by hincandenza to Work & Money (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Each member of the fab five made only $3k / episode during the first season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Cnn has an article on the topic.
posted by malp at 5:13 PM on December 29, 2005

before he became filthy rich hosting the highly rated "ABC/Disney Extreme Home Makeover Sears Commercial" with all his tie-in marketing dollars to boot, Ty Pennington was a lowly goofball carpenter on "Trading Spaces".

This is probably a bad example. That job on TS was less carpenter than tv personality. You can google around and find several articles without much trouble talking about the reality of what goes on during TS filming. Neither Ty nor my lovely and talented future ex-wife Amy Wynn are the only people doing carpentry. They are the reality show version of actors, there to be metaphors, as it were, for their job roles.
posted by phearlez at 5:54 PM on December 29, 2005

I have two personal friends who are recognizable regulars on a mid- to low-level popular half-hour sitcom, and a mid- to low-level one hour comedy/romance type show. The former makes about $25,000 per episode. The latter makes about $75,000 per episode (although this person is far more a part of the cast). Still, neither are the "stars" by a longshot. Both will also make residuals every time their episode is shown. Both also get smallish shares of DVD sales.
posted by frogan at 5:57 PM on December 29, 2005

Oh, and keep in mind that they'll book 15-20 episodes per season. And their salary is fixed per episode, not anything else. So, they get the same salary for a five-second apperance as they do a five-minute appearance.
posted by frogan at 6:02 PM on December 29, 2005

Response by poster: Well, I understand that phearlez- the off-screen people probably make bupkiss; I'm curious about the on-screen people who aren't inking the huge deals, or even with regular tens-of-thousands-per-episode you'll get with most network show deals. Even minor shows on network TV make (as on preview frogan noted) tens of thousands per episode for less critical charactres, considerably more if you're the key character/lead. If you have a breakout hit or god help you a Frasier, Friends, or the like you can pull down very high six figures or even seven figures an episode, not even counting syndication.

Those aren't the people that interest me, because I consider that "making it" to be on a network tv (or heavily syndicated tv, like "Blind Date" host Roger Lodge), when you can net earn retirement-level money from 1-2 seasons if you save and invest wisely. frogan, I'm curious if your friends are on network (ABC/NBC/Fox/etc) /prime cable (HBO) shows, or are actually making that kind of money doing a show for Bravo/A&E or the like.

What interests me are people working in the free cable ghetto, especially those who aren't big enough established stars to command good money or who aren't having the big breakout hits (I think the Osbournes made huge money for Season 2, for example). An example being on-screen personalities for Trading Spaces including Ty, Amy Wynn, Paige Davis when she hosted, the various designers like Frank, Edward, Genevieve, etc that only appear in a few episodes per season.

Not to mention shows like Queer Eye (thanks malp!), hosts for shows like Scare Tactics or Debbie Travis' Facelift, etc, and perhaps most interesting, the Real World spinoff game shows like Inferno, Real World/Road Rules Challenge, these bunch of new minor celebrity Osbournes-esque shows like Family Bonds, the Hogans one, Tammy Wynette has one now, etc, etc, etc.

Basically I could have said "What do people make in the minor leagues of television". I suppose I could research each one individually, but was hoping someone knew of a Variety-like resource for this kind of info that wasn't about blockbuster movie/music/tv stars.
posted by hincandenza at 6:13 PM on December 29, 2005

Hicandenza, basic cable non-fiction pays peanuts. Hosts, other than the stars imported from other media, might make a $5,000 a week or more, very respectable for journalism but negligible for TV talent -- but they only get paid that while in production, which might only be 12 or 15 weeks a year, and don't get year-round benefits, either. Recurring characters / experts are going to be day players, getting a few hundred dollars each day they're on the call sheet, but no guaranteed days.

I think it's fair to say that for most people who do basic cable non-fiction professionally, they see it as a loss leader for their book sales, lecture tours, or product endorsements, or as a minor league that might get them a shot at a more lucrative job elsewhere in media.

Basic cable fiction shows are relatively MUCH more lucrative. There's still a disparity with network programming. Your feature actor on some craptastic WB show will still make more than a feature actor on "The Shield" or a reporter on "The Daily Show," but it won't be ten or twenty times as much, as would be the disparity between a network non-fiction show vs. a basic cable non-fiction show.
posted by MattD at 8:15 PM on December 29, 2005

It's REALLY hard to get info on reality show contestants, for one, because their contacts are so draconian, but a Simple Life (Season 2, I think? The one where Paris and Nicole traveled around in a van to different families?) host family member told me anonymously that he or she (insert gender-neutral pronoun here) expected to be paid $1500 for his or her appearance. 20th Century Fox Television declined to confirm or deny that amount, as I recall.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:16 PM on December 29, 2005

semi-related: I know people who have lived for a year and a half from one nationally running commercial (and not one of the most often repeated ones either)--pretty good for a day's work, i thought.
posted by amberglow at 9:58 PM on December 29, 2005

Also semi-related, via a different angle:

Entry-level TV news salaries compared to other entry-level journalism salaries (hint: TV is the lowest).

And from American Journalism Review in 2000:

The median starting pay in television news was just less than $20,000 in 1999. According to the annual survey of journalism and mass communication graduates by the University of Georgia, that's the lowest full-time salary paid in any journalism field...."Broadcast news is rapidly becoming "one of the lowest-paying jobs a college graduate can find..."
posted by mediareport at 10:47 PM on December 29, 2005

I'm curious if your friends are on network (ABC/NBC/Fox/etc) /prime cable (HBO) shows, or are actually making that kind of money doing a show for Bravo/A&E or the like.

The lower-level earner ($25K) has a small recurring part on a recognizable network sitcom (i.e. you've heard of it). The higher level earner has a more significant part on the show (i.e. you've heard of the show, and possibly the character, but she's still not one of the stars, though). Now, while her show is technically on a network, it's the WB, so the smallest of them.

An example being on-screen personalities for Trading Spaces ... Basically I could have said "What do people make in the minor leagues of television".

I don't have numbers, but a good rule of thumb would be to consider that these "minor-leaguers" might be making SAG/AFTRA scale -- figure about $500 per day, plus expenses. The aforementioned Paige Davis, at the start of her run, might have asked for double, triple or quadruple scale. In the later portion, she probably had a completely different contract, because they had her doing books and promos and whatnot.

Sticking with the Trading Spaces theme, it's entirely possible that the designers aren't making anything at all. Oh, they're expenses are taken care of, and maybe they charge the production a "design fee." But these appearances are worth money to them in their regular design businesses -- it would be a heck of a promotional tool for your business to appear on one of these shows.

I actually think that's what happens with the Road Rules people -- they don't get paid at all (other than expenses). It's a self-promotional deal, with the idea that at some point in the future, you actually get your own hosting gig, if you turn yourself into a "character." Or at the very least, you get a free road trip and a measure of fame.

I think it's fair to say that for most people who do basic cable non-fiction professionally, they see it as a loss leader for their book sales, lecture tours, or product endorsements, or as a minor league that might get them a shot at a more lucrative job elsewhere in media.

On preview, that nails it on the head right there.
posted by frogan at 10:59 PM on December 29, 2005

My friend's aunt had a two-line part on The West Wing this season. It took about 10 hours to film, but was completed in a day, and she was paid "several thousand dollars." Less than $10, more than $3 would have been my guess; I didn't want to push it with her.
posted by disillusioned at 4:34 AM on December 30, 2005

I've heard that all MTV shows do pay people--i think some of the former RW people have blogged about it (Melissa definitely, i think)--how it was easy money to go on the Challenges so they went for it.
posted by amberglow at 6:02 AM on December 30, 2005

A friend of mine had a small part on Kojak with Ving Rames for one episode. I think he made something like 5-10k for the appearance. He also does a lot of commercials and seems to make a pretty good living.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:17 AM on December 30, 2005

One thing to bear in mind is that a lot of folks who show up on MTV are in it for the publicity and "fame" (if it can be called that), not the money. A lot of them are trying to parlay that into a more regular gig.
posted by mkultra at 8:38 AM on December 30, 2005

Jerry Springer would give you airfare to Chicago and two nights in a hotel.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2005

Response by poster: Wow, lots of good info- not sure which one deserves BA status. Looks like some of the same questions ended up being asked in that thread amberglow linked, including about American Chopper and the RW/RR Challenge shows- two examples that were of interest to me.

If I can sum up, it sounds like actors with recurring roles will make damn good money, insane money if they're on network TV- which we all already knew. Syndication or residuals for shows/commercials can be particularly lucrative. Non-fiction hosts/personalities like reality show hosts on TLC, Discovery, Bravo, etc can make a decent living, high five/low six income for a 1/3 of a year's work but it's a hellish rat race to get those gigs. They aren't necessarily exceeding a good IT person's salary, for example.

Game show participants make very modest amounts if they don't win, but we all kind of knew that too. Basic cable minor personalities (designers on TS, "Best Week Ever" talking heads, Real World Veterans, etc) and recurring reality show participants of all stripes- competitive or otherwise- generally t the shaft unless they win some "big prize": they make less than SAG rates in some cases, or at best $1-2k a week on one of the unscripted documentary style shows for a few weeks of filming, little more than extra spending cash. It seems that even the hideous Ruthies and Corals and Matts and Marks really are just taking some spending cash, and hoping that low pay and the exposure will ultimately lead to a "real" gig with beaux coup buxx.
posted by hincandenza at 9:15 AM on December 30, 2005

I've always wondered what the Mythbusters guys make. I imagine they didn't make a whole lot the first season but are rolling in it now. I hope so anyways, that show ROCKS!
posted by Justin Case at 10:44 AM on December 30, 2005

Through a previous job, I did some work for one of the guest designers on "While You Were Out".

He was on 6-7 episodes a year (before he jumped ship.)

He once told me and another colleague that he received around $20,000 per episode.

Not sure if it was the truth or not, but I believed him.
posted by punkrockrat at 8:58 PM on December 30, 2005

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