The Glamorous and Not-So-High Paying World of TV News

If you want to see a look of disbelief on a number of faces at one time, try telling a group of fresh faced juniors and seniors in a college broadcast communication class that the TV news business really doesn’t pay a lot of money. That’s the response I’ve had when speaking to college students and someone asks me about the big bucks made by the people in the business. Those who want to be in front of the camera (and many do) assume if you make it “on-camera” that you will be pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with cash to the bank every week.
What brings this particular topic up is a posting by a broadcast newsperson who also teaches part time. It seems none of the students believed the teacher when he or she talked about starting salaries IN TV news. The teacher asked news folks to post starting salaries in various markets. At last count there were more than 60 posts and they ranged from starting salaries in 1966 to this year. One person said she started making 12K as an on-air person back in 1983, a producer says in 1988 that he or she made 12K as a first job in a top 50 market. One female reported a salary of 17K when starting as a Wx person in 1995 while in 1999 a person who started out as a morning/anchor -reporter in a 170’s market pulled down 15.5K. In 2006, a reporter was paid a starting salary of 28K in a size 34 market, which is about a half dozen markets larger than Memphis. My first TV gig in 1981 as an anchor in Jackson, TN was 12.5K and I made 15.5K the next year. No there was no contract and I only got the boost because I was considering going to Jackson, MS.
Many of these folks hear about the mega-salaries of the network anchors and get themselves worked up into a lather. They think that folks in the business at the local level don’t want to tell how much they are really making because they don’t want the competition from the young Turks fresh out of college. I’ve tried to explain that if you want to make big bucks in TV, go into sales and even that is a pretty cutthroat business anymore. When I worked at the station DOTR, the expensive cars in the parking lot belonged to one of two groups: the sales people and the interns from Ole Miss. The news people drove the run-of-the-mill stuff.
In all honesty, if you want to make some big bucks in the news business, you have to be one of the evening anchors and if you can deliver the numbers consistently over the course of several years then you will get some nice compensation. A few of the marquee reporters who have carved out a niche can command some nice bucks unless a consultant decides that he or she doesn’t have that certain TV look. Then you’re facing a crap shoot at best.
I asked one high ranking college official involved in the broadcast education process if he shared “the truth” with students. He said he did but that many “just wanted to be on TV”. He said he basically figured they had been warned but in reality they probably didn’t believe him about the money, or the hours which can be worse than the money sometimes.
What made me decide to post on this was the person standing at the eastbound I-240 exit ramp to Union in Midtown. The sign read “Homeless, Will Work for Food”. I just wonder, was this a former newsperson with a degree in broadcast communication?

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9 Comments on “The Glamorous and Not-So-High Paying World of TV News”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I think you should also mention the personalities and talent who make the extra chips by doing commercials, MC-ing jobs, special events, etc.

    I remember Dick Hawley mentioning that he made a good living doing emcee jobs and voice overs.
    I also remember Dave Brown turning up all the time in different venues.
    Any thoughts on this and does it help or has the field become too crowded now?

  2. Joe Larkins Says:

    DOTR only WX folks could do commercial work and be paid for it and even that might have been discouraged in the last ten years. I was approached a couple of times about “fronting” corporate videos and even did one. However the GM was something of a micro-manager and not only wanted to see the scripts before allowing the “on-air” folks to participate but also wanted to make changes to the scripts. (I guess we were trusted to use our judgement at work but not when it came to non-news stuff.) Yes, it was a control issue.
    Needless to say the corporate clients frowned on the practice of a TV GM approving their scripts and opted to go with other talent with fewer strings attached which is what the GM wanted anyway. That prompted several on-air people DOTR to sneak around and do such jobs without telling the GM. I was once offered 50-dollars to speak to a church group in North Mississippi. I turned it down. I don’t know if anybody else offered to pay. I just figured it was part of the job to get out and “grip and grin” with the folks. I never asked for a fee. Maybe that was stupid on my part but I never thought so.

  3. Average Guy Says:

    Great topic — it is one where perception and reality could not differ more. The perception is all on-air folks have high salaries because what one hears about are the Katie Courics of the world. Much like everyone thinks TV advertising is expensive because each year they hear Super Bowl commercials are north of $2 million. The reality is supply and demand. There is a greater supply of talent than the demand for on-air people. Granted, management has to decide if they risk the unknown to save a buck or pay to keep those who deliver. However, talent has to weigh how much leverage they have when determining what kind of salary they demand.

    As more broadcast groups are run by private-equity bankers, the “cost” factor becomes greater. Mark my words, when the station DOTR is sold, whomever buys it will pay a premium for it because it is a great station. They will then have to recoup their outlay (or pay back the bank). To do so they can only drive the revenue line so far. The Memphis market is not growing so much to justify leaving expenses alone. Therefore, they will cut costs. What is the highest cost in any business? Salaries and benefits. Who generally has the highest salary? Management and long-term employees — particularly on-air folks. Guess where they start cutting?

    This, my friend, is not just the broadcast business today, it is business today.

    The GM

  4. bishop Says:


    I was told that DOTR no reporter or anchor makes less than 50,000. Is that true?

  5. Joe Larkins Says:

    I think somebody was pulling your leg.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I always wondered what the TV wrestling guys made. Lance Russell should have made $50,000 for all the abuse he took from Jerry Lawler. I think the others made $100 per night and all the pop corn they could pick up from the floor.

  7. Joe Larkins Says:

    I don’t know the dollar amount but it seems to me Jerry “The King” Lawler made the comment just a few years ago that it was almost obscene as to how much money he made by being ringside and offering commentary on some of these big televised wrestling matches outside of Memphis. He said he basically only had to work about an hour a week to live very well. That’s one reason I wasn’t surprised a couple of years ago that someone wanted to break into his house to find the horde of cash he was alledged to have kept there inside a jukebox. He later denied ever keeping large amounts of cash at his home.
    Working ringside is one of the the things that helped gain Dave Brown such fame in the viewing area. There was also that weather thing I hear he does on occasion.

  8. Doug Johnson Says:

    I tell you Joe, there’s nothing like money to get people talking!

    I’ve run into the same phenomenon you mention, students unwilling (or unable) to accept the pittance they’ll make when first getting into the biz. I got 12K in my first reporting job, 1986 in Casper, WY. I got a $500 a year bump when I made a 90-market jump to Savannah, GA.

    I never made decent money on air until I got to the station DOTR, and I barely broke into the 30s. So it wasn’t even that decent! The one outside thing I did in Memphis was a video for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The news director and GM said “no,” until I pointed out they had just let the main anchor do a similar tape for the Memphis Fire Dept., where his son was working. So I got to do the tape. What did I get for my trouble? A colorful St. Jude necktie!

    Once I moved into management, I did much better money-wise — but that was also because I moved into the top 30 in Nashville and into the top 10 in Atlanta.

    I was surprised once I got to CNN. It’s always had the reputation of under-paying, but that hasn’t been the case for a while — depending on what you do. Some of the entry-level jobs are in the 20s — and that’s even for people with local experience. But it’s a lot more for most of the other jobs. In fact, a lot of people stay here because of the money (although the perk package is good too — free passes to the Atlanta Braves, Hawks & Thrashers, stock options, good 401k, etc.). In fact, some of the behind-the-scenes long timers are in the 6-figure range.

    And, because it’s a “network,” even the lower-level reporters and Atlanta-based anchors aren’t hurting for cash.

    But, as happens, when there have been cutbacks, the corporate folks have tended to go after some of the longer-tenured (therefore higher-paid) people on the staff.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Just recently, I was laid off, the second time in about ten years. The previous poster is right, the powers that be go after the longer tenured people…there’s no logic to it.

    I hope to find something that’s halfway stable for the last 20 years or so of my working career.

    Wishful thinking????

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