Bret Watson
August 16, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Really, it’s none of anybody’s business,” says Jennifer Aniston. ”It’s like, how would you like me asking ‘Well, whadda you make?”’

Not $100,000 a week, that’s for sure — or even the $40,000 each that she and her buddies are currently estimated to make — but never mind. The point is, like it or not, TV stars’ salaries are being made everybody’s business. When Aniston and her fellow Friends banded together and demanded a $60,000-per-episode raise last month, they made their weekly paychecks topic A in the entertainment industry. And it didn’t stop there: On July 22, the two stars of New York Undercover, Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo, took the Friends‘ threat one step further when they failed to show up for work, with Yoba demanding a raise of about $55,000 an episode — from roughly $20,000 to $75,000 — not to mention a bigger trailer, a gym, and tastier food. NYU’s executive producer, the notoriously brusque and budget-minded Dick Wolf, responded swiftly: Two days later he was auditioning replacements. ”There’s a virus infecting the entertainment industry,” he fumed in a press release blasting ever-escalating salary demands.

Of course, the money virus isn’t confined to actors. The Friends‘ job action apparently came after a Warner Bros. Television Distribution executive bragged that the syndication rights would sell for $4 million an episode. (Math break: If you figure the average show airs 22 episodes a year, and a successful series can live for five years or more, Warner Bros. stands to make more than $440 million.) It’s safe to say that TV stations won’t be paying that kind of money to see reruns of Marcel the monkey molesting Barbie dolls. Surely, in addition to the studio and the show’s creators, the actual Friends deserve a bigger slab of the cash cow.

For the most part, the buzz in Hollywood is not only that they do, but that well, so what? Such renegotiating of contracts is business as usual. ”This happens with every successful show,” says Warner Bros. Television VP David Janollari. In recent years, for example, cast members of Seinfeld, Married… With Children, and Frasier all demanded pay hikes from their studios, with nary a ripple in the press. And at the moment, according to United Talent Agency founding partner Peter Benedek, ”the same thing is going on at ER…they’re renegotiating their salaries in the context of unbelievable success.”

The Friends figures may have made headlines simply because the world has become their auditor. Indeed, the leak of the negotiations to TIME magazine (purportedly by an agent to one of the stars) appears to be the one aspect of this incident that has truly shocked the industry. ”The only thing wrong about the Friends situation is that it was publicized,” says manager and producer Gavin Polone. ”My conjecture is that someone messed up.”

Unlike movie stars’ salaries — which are published as routinely as box scores — TV paychecks are normally as closely guarded as a poker hand. The reason, in a nutshell, is that while film actors are independent contractors, going from project to project, TV stars are salaried employees who must (with any luck) work harmoniously with the same bosses and costars for years. In such an environment, gossip about paychecks becomes as verboten as at any office. Furthermore, small-screen stars — by virtue of coming into a viewer’s home every week — have a more intimate relationship with their audience and thus run the risk of alienating their fans with outrageous demands. In the case of Friends, for example, viewers might wonder just how many decaf lattes these slackers need to buy. ”If you are a TV star, it doesn’t pay to have your fee leaked to the public. It sends a message to viewers of ‘Hey, we’re superrich and you’re not,’ ” says Polone.

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