Follow the Money

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 5 1998 7:19 PM

Follow the Money

Do people who go on TV talk shows get paid? Washington journalists, Hollywood celebrities, lawyers and other experts appear on TV in droves. Often they have their own agendas--a movie or book to push. Even without a specific agenda, most people regard appearing on television as more of a thrill than a burden. (Gore Vidal famously said, "Never turn down a chance to have sex or go on television.") Do they, in addition, get money, or do they do it for free?

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The answer is, it depends. It depends primarily on whether the particular TV show is classified as "entertainment" or "news." When millionaire actor Matt Damon goes on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to promote his latest movie, he gets paid. When ubiquitous law professor Jonathan Turley appears on Meet the Press, it is for the glory alone. (Of course TV glory can lead to lucrative speeches and book contracts, so there is money in it indirectly.)

Most late night talk shows are considered "entertainment." Everyone who appears on Leno or Letterman--even the bespectacled little boy who can spell those big words--is paid at least the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) minimum, which is $726 per episode. (Big stars are occasionally paid more.) Even ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, which mixes journalists with movie stars, counts as "entertainment" and pays its guests the AFTRA minimum.

On the other hand, anything produced by a network news department or a cable news network is "news" and doesn't pay. Conveniently, the news media regard paying interview guests as equivalent to paying sources, and therefore unethical. This category includes newsmagazines (20/20, 60 Minutes), evening newscasts (CBS Evening News, PBS's Newshour With Jim Lehrer), Sunday talk shows (Meet the Press, This Week with Sam and Cokie), daily scratch-and-bite shows (CNN's Crossfire, Nightline), and morning talk shows (Good Morning America, Today Show). So when Bob Dole appears on Jay Leno (three times) he is paid; but if he shows up on Meet the Press (more than 50 times) he isn't. And when a professional homemaker appears on Today to bake gingerbread, she's "news" and won't be paid.

A news show host (e.g. Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson) is salaried, of course. So is anyone identified as a regular commentator, like ABC's George Stephanopoulos who appears on Good Morning America and This Week. Regular commentators--a rubric encompassing chefs like ABC's Emeril Lagasse-- receive yearly salaries and often appear on a variety of a network's shows. Panelists on weekly discussion shows like McLaughlin Group are also paid. Regulars are paid varying amounts; occasional panelists, on McLaughlin at least, get around $500 per episode.

Daytime talk shows such as Jerry Springer, follow the "news" model--that is, they don't pay. But they do cover expenses like airplane ticket, meals, and hotels. Oprah, among others, makes an exception for "performers"--meaning established TV or movie stars--who are given the AFTRA minimum. Oprah did not consider Monica Lewinsky a legitimate "performer" and refused to give her any financial compensation for an interview, which killed a deal.

In other countries, such as Britain, all broadcast guests get paid something--down to the five-minute radio interview subject. British journalists are often shocked to discover that American TV shows expect them to perform for free. Nevertheless, they rarely decline to appear. American journalists are often shocked to be offered money by foreign news services, like the BBC and Canadian TV. Nevertheless, they rarely decline the check.