Making hay of media pay

Mag publishes annual media exec salary survey

Forget the SEC. Media execs are getting a bigger taste of transparency through Forbes magazine than they’d probably like.

The magazine’s annual survey of CEO compensation shows some striking discrepancies among the top media honchos.

One thing is clear: It pays to work for Sumner Redstone. Among current conglom CEOs, two of the top three best paid in 2005 were nontoppers who report to the Viacom/CBS chairman.

Tom Freston earned $22 million in 2005, a shade ahead of Leslie Moonves, who snared $20 million. The current heads of Viacom and CBS led divisions in the old Viacom before the company split in two.

The only exec to come in ahead of the duo is News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who took in $23.6 million during the year, good for 44th on the overall list of CEOs.

Time Warner’s Dick Parsons and Disney’s Bob Iger took in about half that of Moonves, Freston and Murdoch. Parsons earned $10.6 million, Iger $12 million.

Both saw their companies face periods of uncertainly in 2005, with TW seeking to untangle itself from the disastrous AOL merger and fend off corporate raider Carl Icahn.

Disney faced a boardroom soap opera that saw the ouster of Michael Eisner and the ascendancy of Iger to CEO. Iger’s number would have been lower had he not been one of the only execs in the media category to make money by selling stock (about $1.4 million)

Both were eclipsed even by Comcast’s Brian Roberts, who earned $13.4 million last year.

Murdoch, Freston and Moonves are the only media conglom toppers to tally in the mag’s top 100. Only exec with any media connection to rank in the top 25 was Yahoo!’s Terry Semel, who came in second overall. Semel had compensation totaling $230 million, nearly all from stock sales.

News comes as media companies fight SEC recommendations for more pay disclosure for division heads and other execs.

While no one disputes that CEO salaries should be disclosed, the news that most media conglom CEOs are not among the top earners is likely to be used as ammunition in media companies’ battle against the SEC and public opinion.

Conglom CEOs can also take heart in that they stayed out of the magazine’s top five worst-performing CEOs, which is calculated by cross-referencing an exec’s salary with their company’s return on investment. (They weren’t among the five best performers, either.)

SEC scrutiny would already seem to be having an effect. Total pay for the country’s CEOs grew 6% last year — much less than the 54% hike of the previous year.