For all the buzz about how much television news anchors earn these days—Matt Lauer recently made waves after reportedly signing a $25 million–a–year contract with NBC—a more important question often remains unanswered: are any of these enormous paychecks, in fact, worth it?
To try to answer the question, The Daily Beast divided the individual salaries of some of the top talking heads by the number of viewers their shows bring in. By looking at how much these guys earn per viewer, we hoped to get a sense of who’s delivering to their network bosses the most bang for the buck.
Of course, TV news stars don’t make it a habit of publicly disclosing their salaries. So we first looked for media reports about what each makes, and then ran those numbers by industry sources. Audience figures are based on Nielsen ratings for the week of July 16 for network shows, and July 16 itself for cable.
The results were surprising. For example, while the overall numbers might indicate that networks pay more than cable, on a per-viewer basis, that’s not always true. ABC's World News anchor Diane Sawyer makes $12 million to Anderson Cooper’s $11 million. But with roughly 608,000 people tuning into CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, the anchor is one of the highest paid on TV, pulling in more than $18 per viewer. Considering Sawyer has an audience of 7.32 million, she seems like a relative steal for ABC, at $1.63 per viewer.
By some measures, MSNBC appears to be more generous with its staff than network sister NBC—especially if you’re a man. Joe Scarborough, of Morning Joe, earns $4 million and has an audience of 367,000, which comes to $10.89 per viewer. In contrast, even at $25 million, Matt Lauer is only costing NBC $5.88 per viewer, considering the Today show’s audience of 4.2 million.
In general, on both network and cable, women are still paid less than men; if you’re in doubt, check out Today cohost Savannah Guthrie’s reported salary—at less than 50 cents per viewer, she’s a relative bargain for NBC. Among the networks, generally considered more august than their rabble-rousing cable cousins, the exception is ABC, which pays its women more than the men. CBS is a close, penny-pinching second, and CNBC wins the thrifty award for cable.
ABC and CNBC didn’t return calls seeking comment. Fox, NBC, CNN, and CBS declined to comment, as did MSNBC, though a spokeswoman for that network said our salary estimates were “wildly inaccurate.”
Industry experts say viewers—or potential viewers—are just part of the calculation that goes into salaries. The value of an anchor also depends on how much advertising can be sold against his or her show, for example. While the size of the audience plays into that, so do the demographics. A show might only attract a few hundred thousand viewers, but if those viewers are relatively well off, the show can command a premium for coveted ad spots. Advertisers also pay a big premium for younger audiences. Anchors who deliver the 18-to-35 or 25-to-54 age range are compensated accordingly, especially since the news audience tends to skew older. Networks, more so than cable, also compensate their anchors in part for being available to fly around the world when a big story breaks or a disaster takes place.
Television's anchor salaries aren’t “much different from the movie business,” says Derek Baine, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan, a media-consulting firm. “It's supply and demand—their agents check the market and try to drum up competition to make it seem as if that person has other options to go elsewhere.”
Indeed, anchors are increasingly one-person brands, and the bigger that brand's star power, the more likely they are to land big interviews and specials, which can be syndicated and rake in huge profits above and beyond their regular programs.
"Look at Matt Lauer—is he worth it?” says Stephen Battaglio, the TV Guide business editor who edits the annual salary issue for the magazine. “Matt is central to [Today]—if he left, ratings would plummet and NBC would lose at least $100-125 million in ad revenue. His salary generates the ratings and audience that will keep advertisers paying what they do."
Same with a guy like Brian Williams, who “brings stature, and physically represents NBC,” says Battaglio. “There are some intangibles there as well. People who deliver the news for you, the personalities you’ve developed over the years, they become your brand and there is a value that can’t always be quantified …This is built up over time—stature, connection, relationship with the audience. It’s an investment.”