By Lea Goldman
Whoever dubbed television the "small screen" had a very limited imagination. Television's top-earning personalities -- from news anchor Katie Couric to late night funnyman David Letterman -- earned a collective $723 million from June 2006 to June 2007, according to our exclusive Forbes TV 20.
Topping the list is Oprah Winfrey, who banked $260 million during that period, more than the take-home pay of chief executives such as Michael Dell and Larry Ellison over the last fiscal year. (Both join Winfrey on the Forbes 400 list of the Richest Americans, though.)
While a handful of prime-time stars score megabucks, the Forbes TV 20 is dominated by daytime personalities, a reflection of just how profitable (and cost-effective) their programs are to network coffers. At 78, Barbara Walters is at the peak of her earnings potential thanks to "The View," which she co-owns, co-produces and co-hosts. She makes the list at No. 18, earning $12 million. Though late-night talkers Letterman (No. 4 at $40 million) and Jay Leno (No. 6 at $32 million) reap substantially more than their daytime counterparts, the arena for morning and afternoon hosts embraces far more competition. Among the daytime chatters making the list are Walters, Rachael Ray, Tyra Banks, Ellen DeGeneres, Regis Philbin, Dr. Phil and, of course, Oprah.
Nabbing the No. 2 spot on the TV 20 was Jerry Seinfeld, with a $60 million payday between June 2006 and June 2007. His iconic "show about nothing" has been off-air for some nine years. Yet Seinfeld continues to reap riches from residuals, in addition to lucrative stand-up gigs and endorsement deals.
Aside from Oprah, the only other billionaire on the list is Donald Trump, who banked $32 million from his television and
licensing deals. (All told, The Donald clocks in on the Forbes 400 with a net
worth of $3 billion.) "The
Apprentice" was given a stay of execution by General Electric-owned NBC,
which plans to revive the Trump family-hosted reality show this year with a
See the rankings: In Pictures: The Forbes TV 20
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Other reality show titans on the list include Simon Cowell (No. 3 at $45 million) and Ryan Seacrest (No. 16 at $14 million), both from News Corp.'s star-spawning FOX juggernaut "American Idol." Banks, producer and host of "America's Next Top Model," also makes the list at No. 12 with $18 million.
Though TV's top earners once hailed from sitcoms -- "Friends" co-stars Jennifer Aniston and company pocketed $1 million an episode by the end of that show's run -- today the industry's biggest earners come from reality television and even news divisions. Couric is believed to have turned down a $20 million annual paycheck from NBC honchos eager to have her remain in the co-anchor spot on the network's incredibly profitable "Today" show morning chat-fest. She jumped ship anyway, and today pulls in a healthy $15 million annually anchoring CBS's evening news. She is the highest paid network anchor, though morning show rivals Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira also make the list.
The only prime-time series member on the Forbes TV 20 is Kiefer Sutherland of "24." He revived his sagging career in films with his starring role in FOX's hit drama, in which he plays Jack Bauer. Last year Sutherland renewed his contract for three more seasons, crowning him television's highest paid dramatic actor. It's unclear what effect, if any, his recent arrest in Los Angeles, for suspicion of DUI, will have on taping for the remainder of the season. If convicted he could face a mandatory minimum of four days in jail.
The Forbes TV 20 list premieres on E! Sept. 29 at 5 p.m., ET. Check local listings.