A Look at Who Makes What in TV

Netflix and Amazon pay big bucks to grab top talent

FILE PHOTO: David Letterman on stage during the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Show in New York City, U.S., April 7, 201707/04/2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

LOS ANGELES — The explosion of demand for high-end TV series and the emergence of deep-pocketed new buyers such as Netflix and Amazon has been an enormous windfall for marquee talent. Just ask Robert De Niro, or David Letterman, or Katy Perry.

Stars with brand names are more in demand than ever as dozens of competing outlets search for anything that will help a show stand out from the pack. The new business models that govern streaming services have also had the effect of raising upfront payments to top talent because traditional forms of generating a profit from a hit series — through international sales and off-network syndication — are no longer an option.

Among the winners in the past year on the drama side were Robert De Niro, who is in line to receive an eye-popping $775,00 per episode for the untitled Amazon drama series from director David O. Russell. Other big gainers include “Shameless” stars Emmy Rossum and William H. Macy and the “Ozark” duo of Jason Bateman and Laura Linney.

On the flip side, lesser-known actors such as Jason Hartley and Chrissy Metz started out with modest (by comparison) episodic fees for the first season of “This Is Us,” although they are surely poised to add more zeroes in the future. Claire Foy has been collecting awards and praise for her work as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s “The Crown,” but her Season 1 episodic fee reflects the markedly lower pay scales for British productions.

Here’s a sampling of estimates for the paychecks banked by some of TV’s most notable stars. In some cases, the per episode fees reflect additional compensation for their work as producers or for their profit participation stakes.


  1. Robert De Niro Untitled Project/Amazon $775,000
  2. Mark Harmon NCIS/CBS $525,000
  3. Emilia Clarke Game of Thrones/HBO $500,000
  4. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Game of Thrones/HBO $500,000
  5. Peter Dinklage Game of Thrones/HBO $500,000
  6. Kit Harington Game of Thrones/HBO $500,000
  7. Lena Headey Game of Thrones/HBO $500,000
  8. Kevin Costner Yellowstone/Par $500,000
  9. Kevin Spacey House of Cards/Netflix $500,000
  10. Claire Danes Homeland/Showtime $450,000
  11. Ellen Pompeo Grey’s Anatomy/ABC $450,000

Note: Some of these figures include fees for producing and back-end compensation.

It’s good to be Dwayne Johnson. The versatile superstar has become one of TV’s highest-paid comedy players thanks to the success of HBO’s “Ballers.” Meanwhile, Donald Glover is betting on the long-tail theory with his FX series “Atlanta,” agreeing to more modest fees upfront in exchange for a larger share of the backend.

The “Will & Grace” quartet of Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean P. Hayes are back in the top echelon for the NBC revival series. The “Modern Family” and “Big Bang Theory” troupes had high-profile contract negotiations that plumped some paychecks. But it’s not all about the money. The original five stars of “Big Bang” agreed to slight pay cuts to help fund raises for their co-stars Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch.


  • Kaley Cuoco The Big Bang Theory/CBS $900,000
  • Johnny Galecki The Big Bang Theory/CBS $900,000
  • Simon Helberg The Big Bang Theory/CBS $900,000
  • Kunal Nayyar The Big Bang Theory/CBS $900,000
  • Jim Parsons The Big Bang Theory/CBS $900,000
  • Dwayne Johnson Ballers/HBO $650,000
  • Mayim Bialik The Big Bang Theory/CBS $500,000
  • Julie Bowen Modern Family/ABC $500,000
  • Ty Burrell Modern Family/ABC $500,000
  • Jesse Tyler Ferguson Modern Family/ABC $500,000
  • Ed O’Neill Modern Family/ABC $500,000
  • Melissa Rauch The Big Bang Theory/CBS $500,000
  • Eric Stonestreet Modern Family/ABC $500,000
  • Sofia Vergara Modern Family/ABC $500,000

How badly did Netflix want David Letterman on its platform? Enough to pay him an estimated $2 million per episode for a six-episode commitment for an in-depth interview series. That number has sent jaws dropping throughout the unscripted TV community. So did Katy Perry’s deal to preside as a judge over ABC’s new iteration of “American Idol.” Nevertheless, it’s two daytime syndication stars who pace the race for big paychecks among reality, news and host talent. DeGeneres has seen her salary and profit participation on “Ellen” soar in recent years. “Judge Judy” boss Judith Sheindlin is right behind her, and she stands to reap another eight-figure check this year on the sale of the show’s library to CBS.

REALITY/NEWS/HOST Annual Salary Estimate

  • Ellen DeGeneres The Ellen DeGeneres Show /Syndicated $50m
  • Judith Sheindlin Judge Judy/Syndicated $47m
  • Matt Lauer Today/NBC $25m
  • Katy Perry American Idol/ABC $25m
  • Kelly Ripa Live With Kelly & Ryan/Syndicated $22m
  • Megyn Kelly NBC News $18m
  • Robin Roberts Good Morning America/ABC $18m
  • Jimmy Fallon The Tonight Show/NBC $16m
  • Stephen Colbert The Late Show/CBS $15m
  • Jimmy Kimmel Jimmy Kimmel Live/ABC $15m
  • Pat Sajak Wheel of Fortune/Syndicated $15m
  • Ryan Seacrest Live With Kelly & Ryan/Syndicated $15m
  • George Stephanopoulos ABC News $15m
  • Anderson Cooper CNN $12m
  • David Letterman Untitled Show/Netflix $12m
  • Conan O’Brien Conan/TBS $12m
  • Ryan Seacrest American Idol/ABC $12m

Note: Some of these figures include fees for producing and back-end compensation