If you ever wanted to know the difference between cable and broadcast TV the news today on the contract renewals for Game of Thrones season 8 is a great example. Deadline brought the exclusive word this evening that 5 major Thrones stars will receive big raises for season 8.
Before I list them off go ahead and guess who you think the top five stars of the show are…
OK, HBO thinks the list includes Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Kit Harrington (Jon Snow), Lena Heady (Cersei Lannister), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister), all of whom have been signed for at least $500,000 per episode for seasons 7 and 8. Technically the news is season 7 for sure and season 8 “if it’s picked up”, but, c’mon.
It’s tough to see that list and not see Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), or beloved secondary character actors like Gwendoline Christie (Brienne) or Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont). And isn’t Isaac Hempstead (Bran Stark) the last remaining male Stark? Can’t HBO share the love and redistribute some of Ramsey Bolton’s payroll?
There’s a fair argument that these are the top stars so their contracts are going to be negotiated first. Naturally a caveat is included that even if season 8 is picked up this doesn’t guarantee any of those characters will make it to series end, as scripts are still being written. Sure, David Weiss and D.B. Benioff, sure you don’t know who’s going to last.
Anyway, Thrones fans fell in love with the show because of the characters, leads and supporting, so let’s hope this rising tide lifts all (surviving) boats.
That $500,000 payday would seem to put this cast among the top paid actors on TV wouldn’t you think? Nope, they’re not even on the greatest hits list, which includes a solid lineup you remember of six Friends who scored $1 million per episode in 2004, The Big Bang Theory cast who clock in at $1 million or $750,000, and Tim Allen (Home Improvement), Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Kelsey Grammer (Fraiser) all over $1.25 million. Charlie Sheen tops the list at $1.8 million for Two and a Half Men. Two of his co-stars, Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher, also earned more than $600,000 per ep.
Note that all of those shows aired on broadcast networks, and the only dramatic actor who shows up anywhere in the rankings is Hugh Laurie for House M.D.
Game of Thrones is massive in today’s social culture (how many other shows have convinced girls to adopt silver/grey hair) but it is genre TV. As epic fantasy so it takes some basic interest in dragons and witches and white walkers. It’s incredibly violent, starkly sexual, and can tend to drone on with the political stuff in between weekly battles. That’s a tougher draw than a bunch of pretty people in their late-20s riffing jokes that will make everyone forget about their bad Thursday at the office.
Those most-popular broadcast series can regularly rake in massive ratings. In its final season, when many shows are slipping in the ratings, Seinfeld drew 32.1 million viewers on average. The Big Bang Theory has grown from 8.3 million viewers in season 1 to more than 20 million in season 9.
By comparison the season 6 premiere of Thrones – when everyone tuned in to see what happened to Jon Snow – drew slightly less than 8 million viewers. When cumulative, full-season viewing is totaled, which includes repeats, on-demand, DVR and delayed viewing, and streaming, Thrones averages nearly 20 million viewers per episode, but that number takes months to tally and isn’t going to be what a subscription network uses in contract negotiations.
So comparatively the Thrones cast is doing quite well considering the number of eyes they bring to the screen. The fanbase is just so dedicated it’s difficult to imagine that this is not the most valuable property on TV right now. But Breaking Bad, during its heyday, only net Bryan Cranston $225,000 per episode and Aaron Paul about $150,000 according to Business Insider, which called it one of the best shows to have ever been on TV.
The landscape of cable TV creativity is so rich today that perhaps actors are content to negotiate for less per episode just to dip a toe in that pool, where an innovative series can catapult a career. Still, Game of Thrones is obviously very expensive to produce and it relies heavily on a diverse cast that deftly handle characters of shifting loyalties. So if they need to cheat on the CGI for the white walkers in order to give Aiden Gillen (Petyr Baelish) a raise, then do it.
And please, by all means, throw a bone to what’s left of the direwolves.
In the meantime take a look at our recap of last week’s Game of Thrones and enjoy season 6’s last remaining episode on June 26, when we’ll find out if the writers are going to grant the wishes to revive Lady Stoneheart.