The Falling TV News Star Salary
An aging A-list, AI anchors, and agents struggling to justify superstar paydays: 'The trend is to replace them with people they can pay considerably less'
Welcome to The Media Mix, an Ankler column from Claire Atkinson that is an extension of her own newsletter of the same name. She is also host of The Media Mix podcast.
When new CNN chief Mark Thompson arrived last fall at the network’s Hudson Yards HQ in New York, he looked over the anchor salaries and raised a proverbial eyebrow, according to a person familiar with conversations. Coming from the BBC, and most recently the New York Times, where salaries are tiny by comparison, the new British boss must have been stunned.
Take-home pay for top anchors in TV news runs anywhere between a couple of million dollars a year all the way up to a reported $30 million if you’re MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Behind Maddow, Fox News’ Sean Hannity (take home pay is an estimated $25 million), and CNN’s Anderson Cooper (an estimated $20-$25 million) are almost certainly TV news’ second-place earners. Hannity also has a radio show and Cooper works for CBS’ 60 Minutes, where he’s a contributor. Morning anchors such as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts, CBS’ Gayle King and NBC’s Savannah Guthrie are taking home anywhere between $10 million to $18 million, according to agents and other industry insiders.
But the era of such massive paydays is likely coming to a close as media conglomerates make massive staff and budget cuts and the linear business continues to crumble. And news faces unique pressures as TV audiences age along with its stars, ad revenues dwindle and younger generations put their trust in platforms like TikTok. The top-earning anchors are all in their fifties and sixties, and it’s hard to see the next generation commanding paydays of $5 million-plus.
Some of those big-money anchor contracts from the 2010s simply didn’t work. Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and Shepard Smith failed to translate when they moved to NBC outlets. Kelly pocketed $69 million in a three-year deal that ended up lasting less than two after her comments about Blackface on NBCUniversal’s Megyn Kelly Today generated a firestorm, while Smith was paid an estimated $10 million annually to launch an evening news show for CNBC that struggled to find an audience.
Two of CNN’s priciest stars — Chris Cuomo ($6 million a year) and Don Lemon ($7 million a year) — were ousted under previous chiefs, but Thompson on Feb. 5 made his first big move to shake up talent, essentially killing predecessor Chris Licht’s struggling creation CNN This Morning. CNN said it’s in talks to find new roles for hosts Poppy Harlow and Phil Mattingly, but the production staff for now are out of a job, more evidence of cost cutting.
“The trend is to get rid of people with big salaries and replace them with people they can pay considerably less,” one TV news insider familiar with salary negotiations tells me. “You can see it on air and off air.”
This veteran of the corporate side asks when was the last time people were talking about a really good piece of investigative TV journalism or a fight over a great guest booking. So much of TV news now is “rip and read from the headlines,” this person adds, that paying a premium for talent doesn’t add up.
Today, I’ll tell you:
How one top TV agent is approaching negotiations.
Why our anchors in their 50s and 60s will likely be the last eight-figure generation.
The threat of AI anchors (already here).
How millennials are taking the stage but not the salaries.
Why TV news execs likely are also feeling pinched on their comp.
The pressure to be a multi-hyphenate talent.