Get Some, Goldilocks!

Reality-Show Hosts Are Banking Some of the Biggest Bucks in Television

Cynthia LittletonCynthia Littleton is Business Editor of Variety, based in New York. She has covered the television beat for more than 20 years. She began her career at United Press International, followed by stints at Broadcasting & Cable magazine, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter, where she rose to Editor before rejoining Variety in 2007. Littleton co-hosts with Andrew Wallenstein Variety’s weekly podcast “Strictly Business,” featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. Littleton is the author of “TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War Over the Internet” (Syracuse University Press, 2013), the definitive account of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike and the impact of the disruptive digital advancements that fueled the labor strife. She is also the co-author with Susanne Daniels of “Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB Network and UPN” (HarperCollins, 2007). Littleton edited the essay collection “What I Told My Daughter: Lessons From Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women” with Nina Tassler (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

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Some of the most eye-popping paydays in broadcast TV these days are being generated by unscripted TV show hosts.

Kevin Hart, Ellen DeGeneres and Dwayne Johnson are pulling in some $500,000 per episode for hosting competition series on CBS and NBC: CBS’ “TKO: Total Knock Out” for Hart, NBC’s “Ellen’s Game of Games” for DeGeneres and NBC’s upcoming “Titan Games” for Johnson. Jamie Foxx is understood to pocket some $350,000 an episode for Fox’s musical quiz show “Beat Shazam.”

Unscripted TV series have long been seen as the low-cost alternative that help networks balance their budgets as the price of scripted series climbs ever higher. That’s still true, but the crowded TV landscape means that networks have to spend more to make unscripted series stand out.

“Once you’ve invested $25 million to launch a show, if another $3 million to $5 million [in host fees] makes the difference between success or failure, it’s worth it,” says a veteran talent agent in the unscripted arena. Success in the U.S. market also frequently determines the prices format rights will fetch in other markets, the source notes.

As such, the demand for star power has created a windfall for A-listers with the inclination to play games or crack wise while people try to make their way through an obstacle course.

“These are people who are really, really good at what they do,” says Mark Burnett, veteran producer and chairman of MGM Television, the home of “TKO: Total Knock Out” and “Beat Shazam.” “If you want to have that level of capability on the screen combined with the marketing value of a star and the umbrella effect it has on promotion for the network, you have to pay them.”

The income gap between the haves and have-nots in the unscripted realm is underscored by the pay scale for Netflix’s “Queer Eye” revival. As a group of largely unknowns, the new Fab Five — Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski and Jonathan Van Ness — each took in all of $5,000 per episode for the first eight episodes of the show, according to knowledgeable sources. That rose to $7,500 for Season 2, plus a $20,000 bonus apiece.

But nobody needs to throw a rent party for the Fab Five. Each member of the group is now said to be raking in seven figures through endorsement and branding deals, speaking engagements and other off-screen opportunities. Which only goes to prove the TV truism that there’s no faster way to become a star than by hitching a ride into America’s living rooms.