Sofia Vergara highest-paid TV actress: Why there's less of a pay gap for TV

Sofia Vergara and Kaley Cuoco top the TV pay scale for women. The difference between the highest-paid actors and actresses on TV is less glaring than for film stars.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
Actress Sofia Vergara arrives at the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, Calif.

Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” actress Kaley Cuoco are two of the highest-paid actresses on TV, according to a recent Forbes report that also illustrated that the differences between pay for men and women on TV aren’t as stark as that for movies.

Ms. Vergara has topped Forbes's list for five years in a row, with Forbes estimating she earned $43 million this year. Ms. Cuoco came in second, with Forbes stating she earned more than $24 million this year. Continuing down the list are Mindy Kaling of Hulu’s “The Mindy Project,” earning $15 million, while “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Ellen Pompeo and Mariska Hargitay of “Law & Order: SVU” tied for fourth. 

When Forbes released their list of the highest-paid movie actors and actresses in Hollywood, they renewed the long-running discussion over the difference in pay between male and female movie stars. They said that Jennifer Lawrence, the highest-earning actress this year, earned $46 million, while Dwayne Johnson, the highest-earning actor, took in $64.5 million. 

The difference isn’t as glaring in the TV world, notes Forbes writer Madeline Berg. “While Hollywood has a lot of work to do to close the gender wage gap between actors and actresses, it’s not as severe in TV as in the film industry,” Ms. Berg writes.

Why? “In part, this is because ensemble casts generally negotiate their salaries together. Vergara, for example, has the same 'Modern Family' paycheck as Ty Burrell and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Cuoco makes the same amount from ‘Big Bang Theory’ as Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki,” she writes. 

The NBC smash hit sitcom “Friends” changed the industry when the six-member cast teamed up to ask for higher pay. “The stars – David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox and Matt LeBlanc – have demanded salary increases to about $100,000 each per episode, plus a percentage of the series' profits in syndication,” New York Times writer Bill Carter wrote in 1996.

“The salaries each made this year were not equal," he continued. "Some were in the $20,000 range per episode while others were considerably higher.… Stars of hit shows often threaten to boycott their series in pursuit of higher salaries. What is unusual is this cast's effort to use its solidarity as leverage.”

Today, Berg notes that the TV method of equal payment isn’t a perfect one. For example, both “Big” and “Family” have large casts, yet “there aren’t nearly enough of these balanced ensemble casts,” she writes. “Across broadcast, cable and streaming, 58% of series regulars are males, according to the Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment. And the percentages of speaking female characters are only 36.4%, 37.3% and 38.1%, across broadcast, cable and streaming, respectively. Speaking roles, which obviously require more work, are rewarded with higher salaries, and the imbalance enforces the gender wage gap.”

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