Being On TV Does Not Make One Wealthy

Michael Schulman wrote an interesting piece for The New Yorker this week, in which he discusses the shaming of Geoffrey Owens for taking a job unrelated to acting. He points out that artists of all stripes buy time to work on their art by doing any manner of work, from bartending to tutoring. But because Geoffrey spent 5 seasons on The Cosby Show, somehow it’s supposed to be shocking to see him working retail.

As if being on TV pays so much that five years on a show which ran 25 years ago should be enough to allow an actor to stop working for the rest of his life.

What a load of BS.

The article does a much better job than I could of relating why this is small-minded thinking, and in fact the response from the Internet was swift and generally brutal. Actors and others rightly defended Geoffrey and pointed out the ridiculousness that his situation was a story at all.

But there’s one point I haven’t heard the Internet make:

Being on TV does not automatically make you wealthy, and a lot of people think it does.

I’ve been doing this for 20+ years and the first 15 of them were spent mostly doing commercials, voice over and corporate stuff. In other words, work that wasn’t very visible.

But when I started doing TV, a funny thing happened: People suddenly thought I was rolling in dough. As if being part of a visible medium catapulted my income to heights other work could never allow me to reach.

I’m by no means crying poor, but um, no.

Sure, there are some very rich actors who got that way by landing on a ratings hit. And if you’re not in the entertainment industry, I don’t blame you for assuming that since stars can make a million dollars per episode, even unknown actors must be bringing home, say, high five figures each week.


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But we’re not.

High salaries make great headlines and drive a lot of clicks, which is the point of a great headline. But for the vast majority of actors, TV does not make us rich.

According to the current SAG-AFTRA television contract, an actor who’s hired to shoot one day on a TV program will be paid $980 for that day. A role requiring a three-day commitment is paid $2,483, and an actor in a major guest starring role will gross $8,624 to shoot a one-hour program, typically 8 days. Actors on half hour programs get $5,390 for a week’s worth of work.

Those are minimum gross amounts, and out of them come payments to agents (10%), managers (10%-15%), occasionally publicists or attorneys, and taxes. So actors don’t even keep their entire salaries, because the business we’re in is so vast and relationship dependent that we need a team to help us land the work.

These rates are certainly better than the pay associated with of a lot of jobs, but they’re not going to allow us to quit working for the next 25 years.

SAG-AFTRA’s residual system allows actors to earn money as the show is continually used. But the longer the show runs, the smaller the checks. The numbers can be laughable. I’ve gotten dozens of checks for less than $1, and I’m certainly not the only one. Getting a residual check for nineteen cents is a rite of passage for TV actors.

I don’t know what Geoffrey was paid back then, but I do know his residuals have stopped. The Cosby Show has been pulled off the air entirely. He’s another of Cosby’s casualties, along with every other actor on his shows.

Geoffrey’s simply doing what we all do when times are tough: we figure it out.

Being on TV doesn’t automatically make you rich. It just makes it automatically easier for people to think you are.

For every highly paid TV star, there are hundreds of other actors who work to support their shows for much, much less. And though we’re all working toward being able to participate in those headline-grabbing paydays, things don’t always go according to plan.

As far as Geoffrey is concerned, I predict his phone will start ringing again soon.  He should be hosting SNL by Thanksgiving, and good for him if that actually happens.

One response to “Being On TV Does Not Make One Wealthy”

  1. The shaming was despicable. Thanks for the insider take and the facts many of us do not know. I hope you are right, and wil call you prophetic, when we see him on SNL before the turkey is on the table.