Money Made At Midnight! The Business of Late Night Talk Shows… By The Numbers

April 7, 2014  |  

Still of Jimmy Fallon via ‘The Tonight Show’; David Letterman, Lady Gaga & Bill Murray via Michael Carpenter/WENN.com; Still from ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’

With David Letterman’s big announcement that he would be retiring sometime next year, everyone is speculating about who could be sitting at the Late Show desk. Some say Stephen Colbert is a front runner. Now that Chelsea Handler is leaving E!, there’s talk of her heading to CBS. And then there are others (us) who are calling for something a little different on late night… like Aisha Tyler.

Entertaining millions of viewers as they chow down on their midnight munchies ain’t cheap! You’ll need a short Mexican sidekick (à la Jimmy Kimmel’s Guillermo and Chelsea Handler’s Chuy), a snazzy band to add a little “ba-dum tch” to your jokes, relevant celebrity guests and don’t forget the whole cast and crew behind-the-scenes.

How much is all of that? Well, prime time talk shows can cost between $1.5 and $2.5 million — a week, according to Los Angeles Times.

Late night house bands — like Jimmy Fallon’s The Roots — get us all to “turn up!” These talented musicians cost the network a cool $1 million a year. On top of this, to avoid all the legal drama, the network must pay rights fees (between $1,500 and $3,000) for any covers the band decides to play.

The writers — the masterminds behind the hosts’ monologues and one-liners — reap between $3,500 and $10,000 a week, depending on seniority. Paying for a producer sets the network back $300,000 annually.

Let’s not forget about the talent bookers. They’re responsible for getting Hollywood’s finest on the show. These crew members earn between $3,000 and $6,000 a week. Though celebrity guests don’t get paid for making appearances per se, the show pays for their flight, hotel, car service, and a stocked-up “green room” — the place where stars hang out before going on stage.

Clearly it takes an army to sustain a late-night program. But hey, talk show hosts get paid a pretty penny to run the ship, according to Business Insider. David Letterman, who’s been a late-night host for 33 years, is the highest paid of ’em all (excluding cable hosts) with a $20 million salary. The two Jimmys, Fallon and Kimmel, rack up $11 million and $10 million respectively. Craig Ferguson sits on $8 million.

So where does Arsenio Hall fall on the spectrum? The salary for the only black late night host pales in comparison to his rivals with a disappointing $6 million. But he’s not the one with a skimpy pay in the biz — Seth Meyers takes that crown. Meyers, who had his debut on Late Night in February, reportedly earns $3 million.

By now, you’re probably wondering where the heck CBS, NBC, ABC and all the other networks get their spending money to cover all these expenses. Advertising, baby! Commercial spots during prime time programming cost between $50,000 and $80,000, according to The New York Post. If you wanted to shamelessly plug your product on the actual show (aka product placement), that will set you back $100,000 — whew!

Let’s take a look, by the numbers, at how much ad revenue each after-hours show has pocketed:

Ad Revenue

David Letterman’s Late Show: $179.6 million

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon$113.4 million

Jimmy Kimmel Live$77.3 million

Late Night with Seth Meyers$53.5 million

Arsenio Hall Show$26 million

Yes, Arsenio falls flat compared to its competitors when it comes to attracting advertising dollars. He’s even admitted that it’s been “rough” sustaining such a cost-conscious program: “I don’t have the big baller network money,” Hall said. But don’t feel too sorry for him — he’s still got time to prove himself. Hall has been renewed for a whole new second season!

Perhaps next season, we’ll see some better figures — by the numbers — for our “woof” man.

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