CBS announced Tuesday that David Letterman would continue hosting the “Late Show” until at least the end of 2014. The agreement will make him the longest-running host in late night, beating out Johnny Carson’s 30-years as host of “The Tonight Show.” The announcement also confirmed that Craig Ferguson, host of “The Late Late Show,” would stay on as host for at least two years.
Though financial details were not disclosed, Letterman will not have to accept a lower salary, according to “The New York Times” Media Decoder. Meanwhile, according to earlier media reports, Ferguson may have doubled his current estimated $12.7 million annual salary as a result. The move would make him one of the highest-paid hosts in late night – almost as rich as Letterman’s estimated $28 million annual package.
Based on figures from multiple media sources, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the estimated salaries of television’s late night hosts to identify the highest-paid entertainer in the business.
According to Nielsen, while salaries continue to increase, viewership is shrinking. In fact, with the exception of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” the viewership of every late-night show has fallen from last year. David Letterman and Jay Leno, the most popular and highest-paid hosts in the late night circuit, have together lost nearly half a million viewers. Still, their shows remain the two most popular on nighttime television. And at the end of the day, while not the only indicator of pay, popularity is the biggest factor in determining how much these hosts are going to make.
At the same time, the highest-paid host does not necessarily spell success for a network. Some of the most lucrative contracts in the late-night scene are for shows that are clearly not pulling their weight, and are based on expectations, rather than performance. After picking up estranged long-time NBC host Conan O’Brien and paying him an estimated $12 million a year, TBS has failed to see a return on investment. Compared to the same nine-month period a year ago, “Conan” has lost an average of more than 600,000 nightly viewers.
The case of O’Brien and TBS illustrates another major factor networks consider when determining hosts’ pay. O’Brien was expected to be the late night beachhead of TBS, much the same way that Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and E! Network’s Chelsea Handler are for their networks. In many ways, they are more valuable to their respective networks because they disproportionately contribute to the network’s total viewership. This is one of the reasons Handler is paid more than double Jimmy Kimmel, despite the fact that she draws less than half the audience.
Another major factor in a host’s pay is highlighted by the Ferguson’s current salary and contract negotiation: length of service. Regardless of the final outcome, Ferguson already makes well more than Jimmy Fallon, who shares the same time slot. Fallon has only been a host since 2009, when he took over for O’Brien as the host of “Late Night.” Ferguson has been a host since 2005. Fallon’s viewership is well more than Ferguson’s, and his audience has declined less than “The Late Late Show,” which lost more than 300,000 average viewers last year. Despite all of this, Fallon makes $5 million per year, much less than Ferguson.
24/7 Wall St. examined a variety of sources, including TV Guide’s annual salary review, Forbes, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, to identify the salaries of the biggest late-night hosts on television. Average nightly viewership also was considered, along with the primetime ratings of their networks, as provided by ratings agency, Nielsen. 24/7 Wall St. excluded programs that do not feature year-round programing, and only included programs that air between 11:00 PM and 1:30 AM.