Updated | It should come as no surprise to anyone that the cast of The Big Bang Theory, the popular sitcom now in its 10th season, are the highest paid actors on U.S. television. Their last round of contract negotiations in 2014 played out like an episode of a Ryan Murphy drama and resulted in key players Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki now earning $1 million an episode—matching what the Friends cast earned in that hit comedy’s final years.
What is a surprise, and a problematic one at that, is that so few minority actors seem to be making the same amount of money as their white counterparts in data uncovered by Variety and published Tuesday.
Behind Cuoco and company are Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, the stars of Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival, who earned $750,000 for each of the four instalments set to premiere in November. They’re followed by the likes of veterans, such as Mark Harmon (NCIS) , Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU) and the Game of Thrones cast on the drama side who all fall in the $500,000-plus-an-episode range. On the comedy side, The Simpsons’ voice cast command upward of $300,000 an episode and Netflix is throwing similar money at movie stars Drew Barrymore, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill to take on series roles. Great for them, but where are the people of color?
There is one anomaly on the list of highest earners: Dwayne Johnson, who is of black and Samoan descent, is able to command a huge $400,000 fee for HBO’s Ballers. But one can deduce the fact he’s a bonafide A-list movie star who essentially does television as a side project factors into that paycheck.
Look at the lower-end of the totem pole and a pattern emerges: many of the actors are minorities and, oddly, many of the names have earned critical acclaim for their roles, but their pay doesn’t seem to be commensurate with their cultural impact.
At this juncture it seems pertinent to point out that earning $100,000 an episode is by no means akin to living in abject poverty; these actors are indeed very privileged to earn the salaries they do compared to the average Joe. However, one must acknowledge that these actors are working in a completely different industry to the average Joe, on a completely different playing field, and as such, their salaries are going to appear extravagant to most, but perhaps not within the context of the television industry.
Acclaim versus pay
On the list of comedy salaries, the lowest paid star is Gina Rodriguez, whose role in Jane the Virgin won her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy in 2015, over multi-time Emmy winner and fellow nominee Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Yet Rodriguez, according to Variety ’s data, earns $60,000 an episode, while Louis-Dreyfus earns more than quadruple that figure: $250,000 an episode. Rodriguez is a relative newcomer to the industry compared to Louis-Dreyfus, so one cannot expect her to command the same fee, but her awards credentials should count for something.
The disparity between the sitcom stars of ABC’s comedy programming is also notable. In September, the sitcom black-ish was recognized at the Emmy Awards with nominations for Best Comedy, Best Actor for Anthony Anderson and Best Actress for Tracee Ellis Ross. However, both Anderson and Ross—who are industry veterans and in Ross’ case, practically Hollywood royalty as the daughter of Diana Ross—earn less than the stars of Modern Family, The Middle and Last Man Standing.
Anderson gets $100,000 an episode, while Ross’ pay is $80,000; comparatively, the core ModFam cast, The Middle ’s Patricia Heaton and Standing ’s Tim Allen all earn $250,000 an episode. Sure, Tim Allen was great in Home Improvement in the 1990s, but Standing is not nearly as beloved as black-ish by critics, nor does it match it in the ratings. (black-ish got a 2.0 rating in adults 18-49 on September 21, Standing did 1.1 two days later.)
Another lauded actor, Andre Braugher, who has earned three consecutive Emmy nominations, the latest of which came in September, for playing police captain Raymond Holt in Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine is also in the same boat as Anderson with $100,000 an episode, although he is considered a supporting actor in that show.
For drama actors, there’s a big gap between the $750,000 per episode earned by Gilmore’s Graham and Bledel and the highest-paid minority actors: Viola Davis, the Emmy Award-winning star of How to Get Away with Murder, and Kerry Washington, the Emmy-nominated star of Scandal. Both actors, who form a key part of Shonda Rhimes’ TGIT-branded Thursday night lineup, along with Grey’s Anatomy, earn $250,000. Grey’s lead Ellen Pompeo commands $400,000. That Davis, in particular, isn’t commanding more is frankly perplexing—she won the Best Actress Emmy in 2015 and was nominated again in September, and she splits her time between television and a successful movie career (including the recent summer hit Suicide Squad).
Further down the list still are Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, previous Oscar nominees, and the stars of the highest-rated drama on television, Fox’s Empire. They are said to earn $175,000 an episode—less than the stars of some dramas that could only aspire to achieve half of Empire’s ratings. (Their on-screen sons, Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray, are paid just $20,000 per episode.)
The show, which launched in January 2015 and now in its third season, has been nothing short of a ratings juggernaut that at its height, in season one, was seen by 16 million viewers a week. Although its ratings have softened over the last two seasons, it is still the top-rated scripted drama among the networks.
If any cast on television has an argument for earning more, it’s Empire’s Lyon family, led by Henson, who won Best Actress in a Drama at the Golden Globes in January and was nominated by in the same category at the Emmys in September.
The discrepancies are disturbing. Hollywood, in the last two years, has found itself embroiled in controversies over diversity at awards shows such as the Oscars and, at least on the surface, has tried to rectify that. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which presents the Academy Awards, invited more minority members into the voting pool in June, for example.
That initiative counters Hollywood’s diversity recognition issue, but not its diversity pay issue, which is a subject not often spoken about. In 2014, it was revealed that Jennifer Lawrence was paid way less than her male co-stars for American Hustle, courtesy of the Sony hack, and that drew worldwide headlines. A year later, she wrote about the incident, and that gained worldwide headlines, too. What didn’t get as many column inches is Chris Rock saying that, had Lawrence been black, she would have been paid even less. Variety’s reporting supports that claim.
Unfortunately, though, the pay discrepancy between minorities and their white counterparts is not surprising to those who pay attention to these things. Debbie D'Oyley, senior feature writer at The British Blacklist, a database of black creatives in the U.K. entertainment industry, is among them.
“The color of someone's skin or ethnic features immediately identifies them as non-white and therefore of lesser value,” D’Oyley tells Newsweek by email. “This is related to colonialism, missionary-based education, slavery, international aid/charity and, in the U.K., the class system, which is still alive and well.”
D’Oyley believes that the public has been ingrained with associating “non-white people and communities…with lower class, the ‘lazy’ or paradoxically ‘noble’ slave, constantly needing international aid/rescue, deficient in education and western values.”
How does this translate to Hollywood? “Non-white actors, whichever role they are playing, will be seen through the same cultural lens, unless they have a proven track record to be of high net worth at the box office. Then, miraculously, color becomes irrelevant.”
Newsweek has reached out to ABC and Fox for comment. We will update this story should they respond.
This article has been updated to remove the word "leaked" from the headline. The data was not leaked, but gathered from various surveys conducted by Variety.