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In a 2013 interview with the legendary actor Harrison Ford, Conan O'Brien attempts to bribe the actor with 1,000 dollars. (Yes, I know it's a sketch, but bear with me)

Conan: This is a real $1,000 dollars. I will give you this money, if you tell us something about the new Star Wars film.

Harrison: (takes the money and slips it inside his jacket) ... A long time ago ...

Conan: (laughs hysterically) What?! A long time ago?

Harrison: ... in a place far far away... I forget the rest.

Andy: Actually, it's a galaxy far far away.

Harrison: But it ‘was’ a long time ago?

Andy: It was a long time ago. In many ways, it was a long time ago.

(banter)

Harrison: But I hear they're thinking of doing another one.

Conan: That's a $1.000! We're taking a break. I'm getting that money back somehow.

(banter)

Harrison: Do you have any idea what they normally pay you to come here and do this shit?


Questions

  1. I would love to know if Harrison kept the cash. I'm hoping he did.

  2. I can hear Harrison Ford saying "shit", but I might be wrong. Can anyone confirm what he says? If he did, why wasn't it beeped/censored after the show was recorded and aired? I thought American TV networks had very strict guidelines concerning bad language, or can you say "shit" after a certain hour? What exactly are the rules about foul language on American talk shows?

  3. How much are big stars paid to be guests on talk shows? For some reason, I believed they were forced by movie producers or that their contracts obliged them to promote the films they were starring in. Do they receive a nominal fee?

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    AFAIK, you can say the S-word on TBS, but only sparsely and not in a scatological context. BTW, as much as I wouldn't like to discourage questions (and those are intersting), even if these are relevant to the same interview, you're again asking about 2 completely different issues (censorship and guest fees). – Walt Dec 24 '15 at 14:18
  • For example, if I just finished watching Star Wars, I wouldn't ask every question I had about it in one post. It's OK to post separate questions about the same subject - in fact, it's even encouraged. You don't even have to reintroduce the entire subject, you can just write 'in a previous question, I asked about...', link it there and write the new question you have about it. – Walt Dec 24 '15 at 14:35
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    Er, that's what I said. ;) That these are 2 different topics (not 3). – Walt Dec 24 '15 at 14:53
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    @Mari-LouA I would have much preferred at least splitting #2 out into it's own question; there are many good reasons why we like to keep questions focused on a single topic (e.g. future duplicate questions) The upside for you is, more rep, so you may as well :) – KutuluMike Dec 24 '15 at 14:58
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    And M&TV's archive grows. Everybody wins. ;) – Walt Dec 24 '15 at 17:16
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So, this is really three questions, but they're kinda related to "how do talk show appearances work", so I'll try to answer them all. (You probably should split these up into multiple questions and I can split my answer accordingly.)

First, the bit with the $1,000 was almost certainly a gimmick, and Ford probably gave the money back before he left. There was a similar recurring bit on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson where guests could "win" money, but it was entirely for show. I'm not positive but I think there might be some rules around giving guests money for their appearances; see #3.

Second, you're a bit confused how American television censorship works. There are two different aspects to American TV production where censoring gets involved: the government and the network.

There is a government agency, the FCC, who's actual job is to manage the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for radio broadcasts -- which includes over-the-air radio, television, cell phones, short-wave, etc. They parcel out chunks of bandwidth in various parts of the spectrum to licensed operators. In order to get such a license, you have to agree to their terms, one of which is that you won't use the public airwaves to say naughty things. If you do, they fine you lots of money, and potentially pull your license. The key here, though, is that the FCC only has jurisdiction over broadcast media. This means that anything intended for broadcast by the "big 5" networks -- NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CW -- or by local over-the-air broadcasters has to adhere to FCC rules.

Satellite and Cable TV, which is not "broadcast" but "directed" transmission (in other words, you can't pick up cable/satellite transmissions "by accident" with just an antenna) don't technically fall under FCC jurisdiction. However, the networks themselves also worry about the public backlash -- especially advertiser backlash -- if they allow too much inappropriate content to make it out on their channel. So they also have internal rules over what is and isn't allowed, but generally these vary a lot from one network to another. In the case of Conan, TBS is not available over-the-air, only on cable/satellite, so the only rules he needs to adhere to are the TBS networks. Since the show airs very late at night, they're not quite as worried about the occasional spurious expletive going out. (There was a South Park episode that aired on Comedy Central who's entire premise was saying "shit" 162 times.)

Third, you're correct that the guests on these shows aren't typically paid by the show to come on. The show pays all their expenses (hotel, flight, food, etc) but they don't pay the guests for their time. After all, the guest is usually on the show promoting something, so there's a mutual benefit involved.

Technically, if the guest happens to be a member of SAG or AFTRA, they're probably under a collective bargaining agreement with the studio to pay them for their time; my understanding is that with most actors, their appearances are part of the "promotional tour" before a big movie, and is covered as part of their movie contract. Thus, the movie studio would pay them a set amount and they're contractually obligated to appear on a certain number of programs.

If, for some reason, the actor isn't being compensated by the movie studio, then the show would be obligated to pay them -- though the amount is tiny compared to what they make (it's the union base rate, which is less than $1000 per appearance). Also, that stipend would only apply to actors; other guests (authors, politicians, musicians, etc) would each have to be treated according to whatever agreements the TV studio has with them or their unions; in any case, they're not getting paid for "a days work".

In certain cases, a show might want to lure a guest on that would not otherwise appear, e.g. someone newsworthy they want to have an "exclusive interview" with. This seems pretty rare as far as late night talk shows go, but you see it a lot during daytime programming. Legitimate news programs usually have rules against paying for appearances, but "news magazine" programs may not. It those cases, the usual contract negotiations would happen, and the show's production company would have to compensate that person however much it took to get them on the show.

(Thanks to @JakeGould for finding this quora article; it's not specifically about Conan but the same rules generally apply to most talk shows.)

  • I did not know that Conan was not a network show, that explains a lot. Thanks. Pretty good answer, I don't think anyone will better it. I'll wait a bit before awarding you the green tick. – Mari-Lou A Dec 24 '15 at 14:52
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    I really can't add enough content to make my own answer unique, so I'll just add to this with a comment; the Ford bit was a skit. They both knew what was going on. As such, the $1,000 was a prop and would not have been kept by Ford unless it was in the contract. – Johnny Bones Dec 24 '15 at 15:05
  • @Mari-LouA Conan used to have a broadcast network show (a couple of them in fact), but a few years ago lost the one he was on then later got the TBS show. – blm Dec 24 '15 at 17:36
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    This: “Third, you're correct that the guests on these shows aren't typically paid by the show to come on.” Not true. Actors are typically a part of a union like SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) and are contractually obligated to get paid and are paid a nominal (aka: paltry) fee. I forget what the fee is—$500 or $750 or somehing like that—but past the base fee some actors will demand substantial fees for appearances that are typically exclusive. Whenever you see an “exclusive” interview that is truly exclusive, someone is getting paid well. Check this Quora post. – JakeGould Dec 24 '15 at 18:48
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    @JakeGould I have no delusions about how the system works. I recognize that people with a lot of money have strong-armed contracts in place that are contrary to free market principles (as they have done with so many other things including distribution of media overseas, "anti-piracy" legislation, and a whole host of other things) but that doesn't mean any of it is logical from an economic perspective. It looks like we're simply going to have to agree to disagree over the philosophical discussion you started over a joke about the perks of being a movie star. Merry Christmas. – corsiKa Dec 25 '15 at 3:34

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