America's top-earning talking heads
From Ellen DeGeneres to Rush Limbaugh, the 13 stars on our annual list are collectively paid $958 million a year to gab.entertainment Updated: Sep 03, 2010 17:33 IST
Whoever says talk is cheap hasn't shared airtime with Oprah Winfrey. Or Glenn Beck, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O'Brien.
Those four, like the other best-paid personalities on our annual list, are paid handsomely to chat. Whether they chose television (David Letterman, No. 9), radio (Rush Limbaugh, No. 5) or both (Ryan Seacrest, No. 7) as their platform, they've made a connection with their audience and have been rewarded accordingly. The 13 bold-faced names on our list of best-paid talking heads collectively banked $958 million between June 2009 and June 2010.
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Topping the list is Oprah Winfrey, who earned a cool $315 million during that 12-month period.
Though her daily talk show still accounts for the bulk of her income, the Queen of All Media has cashed in with a diverse range of other projects, including a magazine, website and radio channel, regular TV specials and films. Come fall, Winfrey's production company, which made stars out of Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz, will roll out a series from interior designer Nate Berkus, a frequent Oprah guest. Months later she will add to her media empire a lifestyle-themed cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in partnership with Discovery Communications ( DISCA - news - people ).
Tied at No. 2 are former American Idol judge Simon Cowell and daytime shrink Phil McGraw, both of whom banked $80 million over the course of the year.
Cowell made much of his bounty from Idol, the top-rated series he decided to walk away from this past spring. Also padding his ever-expanding résumé and wallet: fees from the Got Talent and X Factor franchises along with profits from his lucrative record label. Come 2011 the Brit who TV fans love to loathe will add another potential cash machine when his latest singing competition show The X Factor (finally) crosses the pond.
With a sizable ownership stake in his nationally syndicated show, Dr. Phil too pulls in millions as viewers flock to him and his increasingly controversial advice. Though the daytime schedule continues to get more crowded with newer entries like Dr. Oz and The Doctors, which McGraw and his son Jay produce, Dr. Phil remains a top-rated show heading into its ninth season. And like other hosts turned brands, he bolsters his income with regular speaking engagements and occasional books as well.
Rounding out the top five are veteran shock jocks Howard Stern (No. 4) and Rush Limbaugh (No. 5).
Stern raked in an estimated $70 million care of his lucrative Sirius XM ( SIRI - news - people ) deal, which pays him $100 million annually, less the production costs for the show (they come out of Stern's pocket). But his five-year contract expires at the end of the year, leaving many to wonder whether the famously volatile host will remain at the satellite radio company. On a second-quarter earnings call with analysts in early August, Sirius Chief Executive Mel Karmazin indicated that a definitive answer on Stern's future would likely come ahead of the company's third-quarter results.
Hardly content with the level of attention surrounding his own show's future, Stern helped fuel rumors that he would take over another, Idol, when Cowell departed at the end of last season. "There's not a better job on the planet than judging that f---ing karaoke contest," Stern told his listeners earlier this year. "It might be possible, we'll see ... they'd have to pay me a ton of dough because I already make a ton of dough." (Stern is no longer in the running.)
The recently remarried Limbaugh made a cool $58.5 million during the same period. Heading into his 22nd year in national syndication, he remains the country's most listened to talk radio host with more than 15 million tuning in each week. Compensated handsomely for that continued attention, Limbaugh's show contributed $52 million to his already thick wallet. His highly trafficked website and publishing added another $5 million and $1.5 million, respectively.