One measure of an ailing society has to be the large gap between the salaries of normal people working in education, science, and government and television performers. For example, the median elementary school teacher salary is $50,590. A licensed practical nurse earns $39,772; a dentist, $136,303; a biostatistician, $143,392; a level 1 engineer, $54,948, a clinical psychologist, $63,000, and a firefighter in New York City, $37,426 to $81,313. These figures come from a variety of websites--for example, salary.com, payscale.com, careeroverview.com, about.com--which, admittedly, are somewhat dated. Even if we increase these salaries substantially to take inflation into consideration, the comparison wouldn't suffer. Added to this comparison should be the approximately 10 percent unemployment rate and the hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless.
Compare these salaries with that of Charlie Sheen (of Two and a Half Men) who earns $1,250,000 per episode--in a 23 episode season that comes to $28,750,000. The four Desperate Housewives each earn $400,000 per episode for a season salary of $9,200,000. David Caruso and Marge Helgenberger (of CSI) each earn $350,000 per episode for a neat annual salary of $8,625,000. Ryan Seacrest earns $15 million, Judge Judith Sheindlin, $45,000,000, and Oprah Winfrey, $315,000,000. All figures come from TV Guide, August 16-29, 2010.
So, what's wrong with this picture? These extreme salaries of our television stars--and the same kind of comparisons can be drawn with athletes--push up the cost of television production. This cost pushes up the cost for advertising. The high cost of advertising pushes up the price of the products the teacher, nurse, dentist, and all the others purchase. So, it is the people making well under $200,000 who are paying the bulk of these salaries. [Of course, people making over $200,000 also pay for these salaries; it's just that there are fewer in this group than in the under $200,000 group.]
But, more important than this, these salaries--and, unfortunately, these discrepancies--define our society's values. These salaries tell our children and our students what really counts and what counts not so much.
Why do we allow this to exist?


Tina Cipara said...

This is an interesting perspective, but I'm wondering if you might have it backwards. You say that extreme salaries of celebrities are what push up the cost of television production, but one could argue that it is in fact the consumer. As viewers of television and film, we are the ones that dictate the success and ultimate value of any product.

Athletes, actors, and musicians wouldn't get paid as much if it weren't for the fans. The fans are willing to pay for access to sporting events, movies, plays, concerts, etc. and this creates a lot of revenue, which ultimately needs to go somewhere. For example, the Washington Redskins stadium, FedEx Field, holds approximately 91,000 people and was once the most profitable sporting franchise in the NFL. For every regular season game the owner of the Redskins is making a ridiculous amount of money in ticket sales alone, not to mention t-shirts, hats, foam fingers, and other fan gear. This being said, it is certainly true that the prices for these items is outlandish, however, I must again point out that the consumers are still buying it. The more consumers are willing to pay, then the more the team owners are making, and the more the athletes deserve their share. They are, after all, the ones providing the entertainment.

So, why are prices so high? I don't think it's the salary demands of the athletes so much as it is the consumer's willingness to purchase even in times of economic distress. If the entertainment business could survive, and perhaps even thrive, during the Depression, then there is certainly a market that is still willing to support it. We are a society that works hard and is often underpaid and under appreciated and as a result we look for a means to escape. For some of us that means escaping to a more glamorous world through TV and film, or to a more exciting one through sporting events. Ultimately, it means that we're willing to pay for something that we don't otherwise have or get to experience in our own lives. This act of escaping has long become a part of our culture and it has helped make celebrity what it is today.

Perhaps now the question is, what can celebrities (or even those behind the scenes, i.e. producers, who are also making a ton of money) do to help even out this gap? I think there are a handful of celebs, e.g. George Clooney, who are using their fame and fortune to help others and hopefully more of Hollywood will follow along. This does not have a direct effect on the working middle class, however, it is at least some contribution to a dwindling society.

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