Yesterday Variety released a salary list for TV’s top stars, and while some things were expected (aka the Big Bang Theory cast makes bank) others were pretty shocking. Namely that some of TV’s top black stars make way WAY less than their white counterparts — despite their shows bringing in top ratings, despite winning Emmys for their performances, and despite (in the case of Taraji P Henson and Viola Davis) being Oscar-nominated actresses.
Empire is currently the highest-rated scripted network drama right now, raking in more than 15 million viewers in its first two seasons. Henson has been nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe for her role as Cookie Lyons. She earns $175,000 an episode.
Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder are both top ratings performers for ABC, and in 2015 Viola Davis became the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Davis and Washington are paid $250,000 per episode.
To put this in perspective, Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel are raking in $750,000 an episode for Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival, Ellen Pompeo is getting $400,000 an episode for Grey’s Anatomy and Clair Danes is getting $450,000 an episode for Homeland — which brings in about a third of the audience of Scandal and HTGAWM.
It could be argued, for Graham and Bledel, that Netflix is banking on the revival of their iconic show to be a hit, and for Pompeo that Grey’s Anatomy has been a ratings juggernaut for 13 seasons — and that’s fine. But shouldn’t Henson, Davis and Washington be similarly rewarded for helming shows that have raked in millions of viewers and won numerous nominations and awards? Shouldn’t Davis’ and Henson’s Oscar nominations count for something?
The comedy side is even more surprising. Despite starring in a Peabody award-winning show that pulls in strong ratings, Tracee Ellis Ross earns just $80,000 an episode for Blackish and is second to last on Variety’s list, only above Gina Rodriguez who earns a similarly shocking $60,000 an episode for the hit CW show Jane the Virgin. Ross is a veteran comedy actress who was recently nominated for an Emmy — the first black woman in 30 years — for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy. And yet veteran comedy actress Julie Louis Dreyfus is earning $250,000 an episode — more than triple Ross — for Veep, a show that brings in less than a third of Blackish’s viewers. Mindy Kaling earns $140,000 an episode for The Mindy Project, a show that was canceled by Fox due to low ratings and had to be revived on Hulu.
The argument here is not that white actresses deserve less money for their performances, but that black actresses deserve more. Davis, Washington, Henson and Ross have all labored in film and TV for more than two decades each, an incredible feat in an industry that is notoriously unkind to women of color. They lead hit shows that have brought acclaim to their respective networks. They deserve more than recognition and words of praise, they deserve financial reward.