Answer Man

Reality shows help TV execs profit on the cheap

Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson
Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson Abaca Press

Q. Why can A&E and other networks make reality shows cheaper than the regular series? For example, there have been five or six spinoffs from “Storage Wars.” Also, it is my understanding that the people on “Duck Dynasty” make $200,000 per person per episode. Is that true? How much do the people on “Storage Wars” make per episode? — G.P., of Belleville

A. Pretend you are a TV executive looking to maximize profits for your network. Would you want to pay someone like Jennifer Aniston $1 million per episode of a half-hour sitcom? Or would you rather offer maybe $750 a week for three months to a bunch of nobodies looking for their 15 minutes of fame?

OK, that’s an extreme example you might face choosing between a “Friends” and a “Big Brother.” But, in general, so-called reality shows are far cheaper to produce. Yet they still grab large audiences (translation: steep advertising rates) who apparently are willing to suffer through anything from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” to keeping up with those fun-loving Kardashians.

So what if many flop? You didn’t invest much money, so even a few huge winners like “Pawn Stars” or “American Idol” will have network suits laughing all the way to the bank. It’s not as if you wind up with egg on your face when, as so often happens, you pay big bucks for a dozen episodes of a scripted series, promote it all summer as if it were another “M*A*S*H” or “Law & Order” — and then yank it after two episodes.

Just think about it. For scripted series, you have to hire writers, build sets and hire costumers. You have to have someone compose the music — and you may even splurge to insert a current hit that adds extra mood to the plot. For shows like “E.R.” you may have to pay experts to insure medical accuracy. Even for such limited summer series as “Under the Dome” and “Extant,” you have to have special effects. And stars like Halle Berry, Goran Visnjic, Sherry Stringfield and Marg Helgenberger don’t come cheap.

Put it all together and it’s no wonder the long-running medical drama “E.R.” made headlines in 1998 when NBC announced that it was going to pay $13 million an episode. Four years later, the Peacock Network was at it again when it agreed to pay the six stars of “Friends” $22 million each — or $1 million per star for each 21 minutes of laughs. And that was more than a decade ago.

Contrast that with a show like “Big Brother,” for which you round up a bunch of characters, stuff ’em in a house for three months and let the cameras roll. Sure, winners in the past have walked away with a cool $500,000 while the runner-up got $50,000. And, of course, host Julie Chen, wife of CBS President and CEO Les Moonves, gets a healthy chunk of change for her pithy commentary.

But according to a recent “Big Brother” contract, the rest get chicken feed for surviving the ordeal — $750 a week, which comes to $4.46 an hour if you consider it a 24/7 job. Meanwhile, the network execs are piling up stacks of cash from the relatively low-cost production.

Of course, if your show does turn into a hit, both you and the network will reap the benefits. According to published reports, the Robertson clan earned roughly $50,000 an episode during the first three seasons of “Duck Dynasty.” Pretty decent money from a network that didn’t know if viewers were going to be fascinated, fall asleep or flee their living rooms.

But as audiences grew along with ad rates, the Robertsons decided they wanted a bigger piece of the pie. So before season 4 started, they essentially went on strike. Not wanting to lose this gold mine, A&E gave in and agreed to pay the family (not individuals) a reported $200,000 per episode to be split among nine adults and 11 kids.

Right now, however, they’d better enjoy it while they can. After an amazing 11.77 million tuned in for the start of that fourth season, the show grabbed only 2.51 million for the seventh-season finale last February thanks partly to all the controversy the family has generated in the past couple of years. Still, the heads of the clan are reportedly worth millions, so they’re not going broke even if the show is canceled.

The same growth in revenue for all involved is also true of “Storage Wars.” When the show started, the main stars reportedly were paid $2,000 per episode, but in just the first year, the audience doubled from 2.1 million to 5.1 million and outperformed competing shows on NBC and ABC. Salaries have risen commensurately. After settling a lawsuit with A&E before the fifth season, Dave Hester re-signed for $25,000 per episode with a 26-episode guarantee, $2,500 a month for travel, a $125,000 expense account and a $25,000 signing bonus. Others were also getting at least $25,000 an episode. Looks like there’s gold in them thar abandoned lockers.

Others also have cashed in. Celebrity contestants on “Dancing With the Stars” take home $125,000 plus an addition $20,000 for every week they stay on. The “Pawn Stars” have made millions from their business profits alone. Last February, the Kardashians reportedly signed another three-year contract for $80 million with E!, although they, too, have started to slump especially now that Bruce/Caitlin Jenner announced he was leaving after season 10 ended each month

“Even when you think something about the Kardashians could be interesting, it’s not,” New York Post reviewer David Hinckley wrote in April. But as long as audiences keep tuning in, these shows will continue to find pots of gold at the end of their reality rainbow.

Today’s trivia

How old was actor Jeff Bridges when he made his big-screen debut?

Answer to Thursday’s trivia: In the 1800s, a capital V was the most popular symbol for the speed of light. But over the years, physicists such as Hendrik Lorentz and Einstein began using “c”, which many say stands for the Latin word “celeritas” — meaning “speed.” And at 186,000 miles per second, nothing is speedier than light.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.