At the moment — but probably not for long — the biggest secret of TV is how much money CBS had to pay Charlie Sheen to continue his hit sitcom, Two and a Half Men. Sheen was reportedly making just under $1 million an episode when his contract expired last month. He hinted he was ready to call it quits. That would have been very bad news for CBS, which draws 15 million viewers an episode. It’s been claimed that the actor was asking for $2 million an episode, and that the talk of quitting was just a bluff.
How much is a sitcom star worth? Answer: Nobody has a clue. It's one thing to compute the revenue stream from Two and a Half Men. It's another to apportion that between Sheen, his co-stars Jon Cryer and Angus T. Jones, the other actors, the writers, and directors. How do you discount for Sheen's much-publicized personal demons and the uncertainties they raise?
One thing's for sure: CBS doesn’t want a repeat of the Seinfeld fiasco. In 1997 Jerry Seinfeld announced he was quitting his hit sitcom, Seinfeld, whose importance to NBC then was much like Two and Half Men’s importance to CBS now. Unlike Sheen, Seinfeld meant it. He was quitting… walking out the door. Really.
Seinfeld was then making $1 million an episode, an unheard-of sum. NBC dangled an offer of $5 million an episode, to do one more season.
Seinfeld said no. Inevitably, word of the NBC offer leaked out. The network brass must have hoped that everyone would appreciate that Seinfeld was a special case and that the $5 million offer did not set a precedent.
Actors thought otherwise. Over the next few years, star — and sidekick — salary demands escalated as never before. In 2002, the leads of Friends collectively bargained their way to $1 million per episode, per “friend.” Ray Romano was making $800,000 an episode for Everybody Loves Raymond, and Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer was the leader with $1.6 million an episode.
NBC’s failed bid to make Seinfeld stay ended up being hugely expensive for all the networks, broadcast and cable. You may ask how that can be. Sitcom salaries are a classic example of what economists call “coherent arbitrariness.” No one knows exactly what a TV star is worth. Given that uncertainty, people are influenced by any salient numbers that are out there. The mere knowledge that NBC had offered (not paid!) $5 million an episode caused everyone to raise their estimates of what TV actors are worth.
This is the "arbitrary" part. Estimates of actor salaries are also coherent, in that everyone appreciates that a star should make than a supporting player; a hit show's actors should make more than those in a dud. Indeed, James Gandolfini once shut down The Sopranos after he found out he was only making as much money as the housekeeper on Frasier.
In an April statement, Charlie Sheen said, “All of the numbers reported in the press are false. Claims from ‘inside sources’ regarding offers from the studio as well as my salary, on their best day, are without merit.” True or not, Sheen’s new salary can't stay secret for long. When it leaks out, it’s likely to generate another wave of aggressive demands by actors — at all levels of the TV food chain.