At a time when most Americans are struggling with high gas prices and an economic recession, Reuters had some really bad taste to release this story on what the richest actors in television are currently pulling in per episode. Topping the list was film veteran Charlie Sheen (who I personally like and respect) earning -- and I use that word more in humor than the actual definition of working for living -- a ridiculous $850,000 per episode for Two And a Half Men. That's roughly $20 million per year the network is spending on a single actor, even if it is the networks top rated sitcom, that's still overpaid by any rational definition. CBS isn't going to go into the tank if it lost Sheen to a competitor, and while his show might well spiral into the ground without him, that doesn't justify paying him more than a lot of shows have for their entirely yearly budget. [Note: I don't know what the upper and lower bounds are for TV show budgets, but I remember reading that Paramount was willing to cut the per-episode cost of Enterprise down to something like $1 million in order to entice UPN to pick it up for another year -- even though UPN was a joint venture that included Paramount.]
Now I don't know how profitable Sheen's show is for CBS, but just for a quick comparison, Sheen is making $850k per episode by himself. In contrast, the first Saw was shot for $1.2 million and grossed $103m. Each successive Saw sequel has gotten a larger budget than before, with the first three costing $15.2m combined, still less than what Sheen will make in a single season. That's three very successful feature films for the price of one Charlie Sheen for a single season of a sitcom that for all anyone knows could continue without him.
The last U.S. census reported that earning even $100,000 per year would place you in the top 1% of all Americans, and this guy is earning eight times that per episode.
Now I don't begrudge him at all, it's not his fault that CBS doesn't understand the concept of fiscal responsibility. He demanded the money and CBS gave it to him, and for that I say job well done for getting what he could get.
But that doesn't make it rational by any means.
What is more interesting to me is that William Peterson is giving up a #2 salary by leaving CSI -- that's turning down a $600k per episode paycheck -- in order to do what precisely? Go back to making movies like The Beast? I don't know how much Peterson was making when CSI began, but it's safe to say that it wasn't $600k per episode and also that once his contract came up for renewal, it got one hell of a huge bump. Even so, he's been with CSI for eight years which means he's rich enough by now that he could surely retire and never have to work another day in his life, so it probably doesn't matter what's next.
He's earned that, certainly, as has Sheen -- the right to do whatever you want once you've produced -- so again I don't hold it against Peterson either. And to their credit, CSI is a heck of a lot bigger than Two And a Half Men is, arguably such that Peterson may really have been worth that kind of money. CSI isn't just huge in the United States, it's a monster everywhere in the world. If a show gets big enough, maybe it really can be justified.
Oprah on the other hand, pulling in an estimated $385 million per year, is beyond retarded. I don't care what the argument is, no person on this planet is worth that kind of money.
What I'd like to see some day is a list of the top paid writers in the world, compared to the other classes. Actors, directors, media personalities and what not. I think the most ever paid for a single script in the film business is like $5 million, and I've never heard of a showrunner making a fraction of what Sheen pulls in. A 3-year $15 million development deal cannot compare to the $60m Sheen would make over that period, and there's just no excuse for that kind of disparity.
Not between the various classes of players in the industry, but also not between those people, and the majority of Americans that have to work all their lives and can't just stop working after "8 seasons" because they get bored, all while making < $20,000 per year.