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Many successful (broadcast, United States) TV shows last about 5-7 seasons. Somehow I'd gotten this story in my head in which this was a combination of two factors:

  • TV shows become more attractive candidates for syndication once they've aired about 100 episodes, which usually means 5 seasons.
  • The SAG pay scale for series regulars increases as the series goes on, and generally becomes unsustainable somewhere around season 6 or 7.

I can find a ton of references for the first bullet point (starting with this Wikipedia article), so I'm reasonably convinced it's true. On the other hand, I'm having trouble finding any evidence for the second one. I've poked through the SAG rate sheets and haven't found anything that varies by season, but they're complicated enough that I could believe I'd missed something (and in any case they only give the current pay scale and not its history, and won't tell me much about how affordable the pay increases are).

Is something like the second bullet point actually true? If so, is there a good reference I can use to convince myself of it?

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A famous examples is Friends: $22,500 per episode in the first season VS $1 million in the last two seasons. - I'm not sure why you doubt salary increases, there is tons of news about TV actors getting a pay raise. E.g. I still remember the news about the voice actors of The Simpsons going on strike. –  Oliver_C Feb 22 '13 at 11:24
    
@Oliver_C: I absolutely don't doubt that salaries generally increase. But generally increasing salaries need not have a uniformizing effect on the length of shows. What I'd thought was true -- and now can't find any evidence for -- is that there was some specific dynamic meaning that salary increases frequently tended to become unsustainable precisely around season 7. –  Micah Feb 22 '13 at 14:56
    
Well, since there are shows that have 8 or more seasons under their belt increasing salaries don't necessarily have to kill a show. But there is some truth to it, see e.g. this interview with Bruce Campbell, where he talks about Burn Notice: ... seven’s a good number. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with seven. It gets too expensive after that, everybody wants big money.... –  Oliver_C Feb 22 '13 at 16:16
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AFAIK most actor contracts are for six seasons, so they must be renegotiated for season 7+, which makes for a possible sharp increase in salaries. –  Martin Schröder Feb 24 '13 at 15:24

2 Answers 2

If I remember correctly, the standard contract for headlining TV actors is for seven years; with some options of renegotiation during, options for dropping out, being written out, allowance to take on other roles, etc.

After the contract is up, and the TV show is still popular/makes money, the actors pretty much make the show what it is (in the eyes of the majority of the public, at least), so they have an upper hand in asking for much bigger salaries. It also happens that after those 7 years, the contracts are renegotiated every year or every two years, and their salaries go through the roof (recent example: Big Bang Theory main actors).

During the first 7 years though, and you might have noticed that on many shows, actors get the "executive producer" credits, even if they are not directly or even indirectly involved in the decision making or creative process of making the show. This is one of the ways to bump their salary or provide honorary title, which gives them more bargaining clout in the long run.

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It mainly depends on how a show does, especially after the first season. Some shows like Cheers managed to get through their first season without great ratings, and the risk paid off over the long term (almost no non-cable show would be able to get away with that nowadays). Most shows that run on terrestrial TV (i.e. Non-cable channels), do indeed strive for the 100 episode benchmark (which is not a set-in-stone rule: The A-Team didn't quite make the threshold, but still runs occasionally on reruns; other shows like Grace Under Fire do make over 100 episodes and wind up either sitting in a valut somewhere or fill up time on Lifetime).

As this article points out in the opening paragraph:

There’s star power and then there’s bankability. And if you have both, you’re really golden.

This is why someone like Charlie Sheen was able to negotiate a deal where he'd make 100 episodes of Anger Management. Charlie was wildly popular from Two and a half Men, and although he went through a public meltdown, he was embraced soon afterwards as someone who seemed to be really likeable (though tell that to Selma Blair). Charlie's contract means he's getting far less per episode than he could be getting if he continued on Anger Management and the show becomes extremely popular, but he's getting far more in the long run if the show works out.

The bottom line is that there is no hard-set rule about when a star's salary becomes so high people start talking about it - it has a lot to do with the star themselves and how popular the show is.

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