Ryan Seacrest Leads Pack of Highest-Paid Reality Stars

"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest leads list of reality shows' top earners.

July 29, 2009— -- Good news for would-be reality television stars: reality show salaries are finally catching up with those for dramas and sitcoms.

Nowhere is this clearer than for "American Idol," the No. 1 show on television. "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest recently became the highest paid host on reality TV, signing a deal worth a reported $45 million over the next three years. It's a significant raise for the Seacrest, who reportedly made just shy of $5 million last year.

The title of highest-paid judge likely goes to Simon Cowell. The "Idol" judge is reportedly negotiating a raise in salary from $36 million last year to anywhere from $45 million to an unprecedented $100 million.

"What we are seeing right now, nine years into the reality boom, is reality catching up with what has been true in the scripted world for a long time: television makes people stars," said Matthew Belloni, managing editor for features at The Hollywood Reporter. "Once the show is a hit, the stars get to cash in."

"Some of these salaries are so outrageous," said MJ Santilli, who writes about "Idol" on mjsbigblog.com. "But in the early 2000s, the cast of 'Friends' was making $1 million per episode. If you look at in those terms, it's not really that outrageous."

Competition or talent shows like "The Bachelor" or "Idol" generally pay participants nothing, unless they win. Diary shows, which document participants' lives, do pay. How much depends on how popular participants become or whether celebrities are involved.

The women on Bravo's "Real Housewives of New York" started the first season making a reported $5,000 an episode. By the second season, their salaries had reportedly gone up to $75,000 an episode.

Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag Make $100K

Other big reality show earners:

"The Hills" stars, Lauren Conrad, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, were each making $100,000 per episode, Belloni believes.

Donald Trump reportedly doubled his "Apprentice" salary between the first and second season, from $50,000 an episode to $100,000.

As their stars rose, so did salaries the Osbournes made on their MTV hit. According to press reports, each family member went from $5,000 an episode to $1 million for the season by the time the show ended.

Jon and Kate Gosselin make a reported $75,000 for each episode of "Jon & Kate Plus 8."

While all that may sound outlandish, the truth is that the salaries, in the case of reality stars like the Gosselins, are only the tip of the iceberg. There are books, videos, appearance fees and endorsement deals that all add to the bottom line.

Jon and Kate reportedly charge $25,000 per speaking engagement and $20 for each signed picture of the family. It's believed that $15 million of Seacrest's pay is for merchandising rights to his image.

Hosts Gets the Biggest Paydays

The biggest reality television stars, however, are the people on screen season after season: the hosts and the judges.

Besides Seacrest, other well-paid reality hosts include Jeff Foxworthy, who makes an estimate $150,000 per episode from "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader," and Jeff Probst, who reportedly makes several million each year from "Survivor." Former "Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe also does well as a judge and producer of his current show "So You Think You Can Dance," Belloni said.

Belloni said huge salary increases for Seacrest and Cowell make sense for Fox Entertainment and FreemantleMedia, the producers of "Idol."

"The show would suffer significantly if they were not there," he said. "If you take Simon Cowell off 'American Idol' is it still 'American Idol?' No, I think it becomes a run-of-the-mill talent show."

Belloni said Cowell has been vocal in the past about his willingness to leave the show. The acerbic British judge has his hand in a lot of pots, including co-producing and co-judging "X-Factor," a U.K. musical talent show. Belloni said, in the past, Cowell has tried to make bringing the "X-Factor" to America part of his deal with "Idol." Fox refused but could do so this year to hold on to Cowell, Belloni believes.

"American Idol" producers declined to comment to ABCNews.com about the contract negotiations, and Cowell's rep did not respond to a request for comment.

Simon Cowell Cashes in, Paula Abdul Wants a Raise

Compared to Cowell, fellow judge Paula Abdul is making pennies. Though Abdul is looking for a significant raise from the $4 million to $8 million a year she reportedly makes, Fox appears to be playing hardball.

Her manager David Sonenberg did not respond to an ABCNews.com request for comment, but last week he was vocal to the Los Angeles Times about the show's "rude and disrespectful" treatment of Abdul.

"Very sadly, it does not appear that she's going to be back on 'Idol,'" Sonenberg told the Times.

"I find it under these circumstances particularly unusual; I think unnecessarily hurtful," he added. "I find it kind of unconscionable and certainly rude and disrespectful that they haven't stepped up and said what they want to do."

Quoting sources close to the show, the Times said Monday that Abdul was asking for as much as $20 million but had come down to $12 million.

After Cowell, Santilli believes Abdul is the most valuable person on the show. "I don't agree with people who say she is too flaky," she said. "She is sort of the heart of the panel, she's on the kids' side."

"I think the show would suffer without Paula," Santilli said. "It would recover, but it wouldn't quite be the same."

But Santilli believes if Abdul sticks to her demands, Fox may just let her walk.

"I think in my heart she's going to come back," she said. "I really hope she's not that stupid."

Kara DioGuardi's Future Uncertain

One person who is dispensable, Santilli said, is new judge Kara DioGuardi.

"If Kara left next year, it would probably be fine. She never did quite gel with the rest of them," Santilli said.

Belloni said he's unsure about DioGuardi's return. "I would think if she were coming back we would know by now," he said.

If Fox learned anything from last season's DioGuardi experiment, it's that "Idol" fans like the combination of Seacrest, Cowell, Abdul and co-judge Randy Jackson.

"That's the equivalent of a cast," he said. "You could take somebody out of that mix but it's a risk. Do you mess with the No. 1 show on television at a time when it has vulnerabilities?"

Belloni is referring to the "Idol's" ratings, which fell in recent seasons. The show also took in less advertising revenue last season than the one before.

And just like in the scripted world, by the time a reality show has peaked, producers find themselves paying more to the talent.

"If you want to keep a show on the air you have to pay the talent," Belloni said. "It stays on the air because it's a brand and people know it. But it becomes so expensive that the network has to decide if it's worth it."

For now, "Idol" is still worth it.