Primetime's richest men


It should come to no surprise that American Idol’s Simon Cowell is the richest man on primetime TV, earning $75 million between June 1, 2008 and June 1, 2009, according to Forbes.

All that money doesn’t come from American Idol alone, although the show is primetime’s most watched. Cowell (pictured left) also earns from many other ventures: his company produces shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent (although both are frequently questionable statements) and he also signs artists he finds through these ventures to his Syco label (soon to be renamed Greenwell Entertainment due to a joint venture with British billionaire Sir Phillip Green).

Second on Forbes’ list is Donald Trump, who earned a reported $50 million “from his … vast collection of entertainment ventures,” writes Forbes. It’s sort of news to me, but The Apprentice does still occasionally air on NBC – another installment of Celebrity Apprentice is scheduled to run on the network this spring. Trump is allegedly paid $3 million per episode of Celebrity Apprentice, which may be where Forbes came up with this $50 million figure. Meanwhile, Trump also still oversees a sprawling real estate empire worth much more than his entertainment earnings. Like Martha Stewart, Trump wisely uses TV to market his other assets.

Number three on Forbes’ list is also thanks to American Idol: Ryan Seacrest (pictured right), the hardest working man in show biz, comes in at $34 million annually. Besides hosting Idol, Seacrest still deejays a morning drive-time radio show; hosts E! news (and has a production deal with the cable network); co-runs a production company, Ryan Seacrest Productions, which produces E’s Keeping up with the Kardashians and Denise Richards: It’s Complicated; hosts the American Top 40 nationally syndicated radio countdown each week and spends every New Year’s Eve not resting or partying but hosting ABC’s countdown special. Take a break, Ryan!

Number four is Richards’ ex-husband, Charlie Sheen. Sheen is well-paid for his starring role on CBS’ top-rated Two and a Half Men, for which he earns a reported $800,000 per episode in both salary and back-end fees, bringing him to $21 million annually. Sheen also starred in another sitcom, Spin City, and in such films as Platoon and Major League. I’m a fan of Two and a Half Men, but perhaps my favorite Sheen role was his cameo as the wise druggie in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Sheen just edged out number five, television’s nicest man, The Office’s Steve Carell (pictured left) at an estimated $20 million annually. I remember when NBC was casting that show, Kevin Reilly, then president of NBC Entertainment, told me something to the effect of: “We’ve found the perfect guy to play the Ricky Gervais role.” Not being a fan of The Daily Show back in 2005, I had no idea who Carell was and almost no one else did either, but I soon became a convert. That led me to approach Carell at a TV critics’ event years later and say something inane like “I love your work” or something else equally pathetic. Carell earns his money from both The Office and his movie career, which thus far has included my favorite movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as well as Evan Almighty, Little Miss Sunshine, Get Smart and Dan in Real Life. Next up: Date Night with Tina Fey and next summer’s animated film, Despicable Me. Get Smart 2 and many other film projects are in development.

Number six caught me by surprise: Deal or No Deal’s Howie Mandel, who earns his $15 million a year by hosting the network and syndicated versions of the guessing-game show and by doing stand-up almost every night of the year, a la Jay Leno. Looks like Howie guessed right when he took that Deal gig, which he’s now doing out of Connecticut instead of LA.

24’s Kiefer Sutherland, playing long-suffering agent Jack Bauer, comes in seventh at $13 million annually.

Southern-fried comic Jeff Foxworthy is in eighth at $11 million. Foxworthy, like Mandel, hosts both the network and syndication versions of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? He also continues on stand-up tour and writes best-selling books. Hey Jeff, are you still a redneck when you’re clearing more than ten bills a year?

In ninth is House’s Hugh Laurie at an estimated $10 million annually. House, often a showcase for Laurie’s wit and talents, is one of primetime’s top-rated dramas and it also does well both in broadcast and cable syndication.

Last but not least is a tie between TV’s two comeback kids, both of whom earn an estimated $9 million annually. David Caruso departed a vaunted role on ABC’s NYPD Blue for a movie career that never really materialized. He returned to primetime as CSI: Miami’s sun-glassed Lt. Horatio Caine in 2002. CBS’ CSI: Miami is another primetime hour, like House, that excels in syndication.

And Patrick Dempsey (left), after breaking teen hearts across the land as Can’t Buy Me Love’s lawnmower boy, went on to 20 years of obscurity before coming back to the movies in such films as Sweet Home Alabama (why Reese picked Josh Lucas over Dempsey, I do not know. Maybe it was the prospect of having Candace Bergen as a mother-in-law). Dempsey allegedly auditioned for Laurie’s role on House, but he’s much better cast as Grey’s Anatomy’s sigh-worthy McDreamy.