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CEO Pay 2023: Salaries of CEOs at Disney, Warner Bros Discovery, Apple

Media CEO Pay 2023: Guess Who Didn’t Get the Memo?
Media CEO Pay 2023: Guess Who Didn’t Get the Memo?

For Hollywood, 2023 was an annus horribilis. But you wouldn’t have guessed that by looking at the pay stubs of many bigwigs in the biz.

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Last year, first writers and then actors went on strike, demanding better contracts after seeing their earnings threatened by the streaming economy. As picket lines swelled, film and television production ground to a standstill, leaving studios with fewer movies and shows to release. As for streaming, once seen as the salvation for a business struggling to attract a fractured (and distracted) audience — well, that has its own set of problems. Nearly every media company has launched an in-house Netflix challenger, but things went south after Wall Street grew concerned that these streaming services cost too much and made too little. That sent share prices sliding across the sector, leading to layoffs and pledges to economize.

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However, the spirit of cost-cutting wasn’t widely embraced when it came to paying the executives who run these companies. The majority of the 12 top execs whose compensation packages we survey here got pay increases in 2023. (Note that stock awards and options represent fair value as of the grant date and do not reflect actual dollar amounts received by executives.) It should be noted that of the two tech titans we look at, Amazon’s Andy Jassy got a 4.5% bump, while Apple’s Tim Cook saw his compensation fall 36%. To be sure, Amazon and Apple make much more money selling, say, paper towels and iPhones than releasing movies, leaving them relatively unscathed by the strikes. Still, experts say the outsize pay packages for media executives are galling given the challenges the industry faces.

“It looks terrible to your employees and it hurts morale,” says Charles Elson of the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance.

Executive compensation also became a cudgel for Hollywood unions. Striking writers and actors brandished signs detailing the enormous paydays for media pashas like Disney’s Bob Iger and Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav. The message was clear: Why should we settle for less when you keep getting more and more?

“A lot of smart people were laid off with a lot of time on their hands, and it’s not hard to find that data,” says Rosanna Landis Weaver of shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. “When you’re having daily conversations about how much these workers are worth, more attention will be paid to how CEOs are valued.”

And there are lots of creative ways that media chiefs justify their rewards. Compensation committees give top brass financial targets to hit, but other qualitative considerations are less empirical. In determining Iger’s bonus, the board cited Disney’s inclusion in Newsweek’s “Most Trustworthy Public Companies” list, while Zaslav’s bonus was partly justified by his hiring of a new HR head.

It’s hard to see how those rank as significant accomplishments for captains of sprawling media conglomerates. But many of these companies, such as Comcast and Fox, have dual-class stock, which means the families that control them get to make the rules when paying their leaders without facing much shareholder pushback. Those that don’t have that kind of ownership, such as Disney, pay their leaders handsomely because they use their rivals as a peer group: They lavish bonuses and options on their executives because, hey, everyone else is doing it.

There are signs that these high-flying paydays may be subject to a gravitational pull. After shareholders rejected Netflix’s executive pay plan (in an advisory vote), the streaming giant announced that it was changing the way it compensated leaders. Going forward, most executive compensation will be pegged to operational and stock performance metrics. Elsewhere, a judge revoked Elon Musk’s $56 billion package as Tesla CEO, saying it had been determined by a board that was in the tech mogul’s pocket.

“The Musk situation could make other companies more careful because they don’t want to invite judicial scrutiny,” notes Elson.

Disney

Disney
Disney


Bob Iger, CEO
2023 compensation: $31.6M/+110.7%
Median employee compensation $54,010
Iger pay ratio to median employee: 595

It was a contentious time for the congenitally congenial Disney chief. First, he made some ill-considered remarks at Sun Valley, a conference for media barons held in a posh resort, characterizing striking actors’ demands as “not realistic.” Those words were slammed by SAG-AFTRA head Fran Drescher, with Iger becoming exhibit A for corporate greed. Then, he spent months in a proxy fight with investor Nelson Peltz, a battle Iger won. For enduring those slings and arrows, he got a rich pay package, including $26.1 million in stock awards and options and a $2.1 million bonus. Iger, who returned to Disney after handpicked successor Bob Chapek imploded, got a bump from the $15 million he earned for his fleeting emeritus year as executive chairman. But his pay fell from the $45.9 million he made in 2021, his last full year of employment. In a punishing media landscape, that type of compensation, to quote Iger himself, is “not realistic.”

Warner Bros. Discovery

Warner Bros. Discovery
Warner Bros. Discovery


David Zaslav, CEO
2023 compensation: $49.7M/+26.5%
Median employee compensation: $171,163
Zaslav pay ratio to median employee: 290

Belt-tightening at Warner Bros. Discovery only went so far, as Zaslav’s 2023 compensation rose 26.5%. He received a base salary of $3 million, stock awards of $23.1 million, a cash bonus of $22 million and $800,000 in security costs. The strikes hurt revenue, but the board’s compensation committee lowered thresholds for awarding bonuses to execs in light of the “extraordinarily challenging year.” In awarding Zaslav’s bonus, the board praised him for developing “inclusive leadership.” All of WBD’s named executive officers are men, as are eight of its 11 directors. Zaslav was praised for the “successful launch of Max,” unifying Warner’s and Discovery’s streaming platforms. It was a rechristening achieved by excising “HBO” from its name. TV and studio revenue shrank, but Zaslav paid down debt accrued from the 2022 merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery. It stood at $41.9 billion as 2023 closed, an improvement given that it previously hovered at $48.6 billion.

Netflix

Netflix
Netflix


Ted Sarandos, Co-CEO
2023 compensation: $49.8M /-0.9%

Greg Peters, Co-CEO
2023 compensation: $40.1M /+42.6%

Median employee compensation: $200,761
Sarandos/Peters pay ratio to median employee: 248/204

Netflix has two CEOs for the price of … well, two very well-compensated execs. Peters became co-CEO in January 2023 when Reed Hastings semi-retired. It’s good to lead the world’s biggest streamer: Sarandos made less in 2023 than the year before but still landed a pay package worth $49.8 million. Peters earned $40.1 million, a significant jump from $28.1 million the year prior when he was COO. Netflix turned in a great year of subscriber additions (+29.5 million) and operating income ($6.9 billion). Still, after an embarrassing 2023 advisory vote — in which just 28.7% of shareholders were in favor of Netflix’s exec-comp — the board made changes. Those boiled down to tying most of its co-CEOs’ pay to stock performance “to align with shareholder interests”: In 2024, 54% of exec comp is tied to performance metrics versus 42.5% in 2023. Given the stock’s 65% rebound last year, that worked out just fine for Netflix’s two top execs.

Comcast

Comcast
Comcast


Brian Roberts, CEO
2023 compensation: $35.5M/+11%

Michael Cavanagh, President
2023 compensation: $29.6M/-26.9%

Median employee compensation: $89,104
Roberts pay ratio to median employee: 398

One pay bump and one pay cut for the Comcast crew. CEO Roberts saw his compensation climb in 2023 thanks to a roughly $3.4 million increase in stock awards, options and bonuses. The board praised Roberts for leading the company despite “an uncertain macroeconomic environment.” He was also credited for cultivating a strong “senior leadership” team. One of those leaders, Jeff Shell, fired for cause as NBCUniversal head amid a sexual harassment scandal. Cavanagh, also cited as evidence of Roberts’ talent cultivation, saw his comp package drop 26.9% as his stock options fell from $21.1 million to $7 million last year — the 2022 options are performance-based awards that depend on his hitting certain benchmarks. Cavanagh, whose bonus jumped more than $1.5 million to $8.4 million, was praised for increasing “paid subscribers” at Peacock, Comcast’s money-losing streamer, and for releasing “three of [2023’s] top five grossing films” at Universal, which took first place at the global box office.

Paramount Global

Paramount Global
Paramount Global


Bob Bakish, former president and CEO
2023 compensation: $31.3M/-2.5%
Median employee compensation: $114,249
Bakish pay ratio to median employee: 274

Bakish on April 29 was booted from the C-suite — a casualty of Paramount Global’s potential sale by Shari Redstone, the conglom’s controlling shareholder. But first, Bakish got a 2023 pay package worth $31.3 million, including a $12.4 million bonus, with the board citing his leadership “during a time of tremendous challenges and opportunities.” Paramount is reviewing M&A offers from Skydance and Sony-Apollo. Analysts viewed Bakish’s replacement with a troika of senior execs (CBS’ George Cheeks, Paramount Pictures’ Brian Robbins and Chris McCarthy of Showtime/MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Media Networks) as a stopgap measure. It’s been tough for Paramount: Its stock was down 10% in 2023 as the traditional TV business shrank, and the streaming division stayed in the red. Bakish agreed to remain at Paramount Global as an adviser through Oct. 31 — although a new owner may have other ideas.

Fox Corp.

Fox Corp.
Fox Corp.


Rupert Murdoch, Chair
2023 compensation: $22.9M/+24.4%

Lachlan Murdoch, CEO and executive chair
2023 compensation: $21.7M/Flat

Median employee compensation: $97,491
Lachlan Murdoch pay ratio to median employee: 223

It won’t be the same Fox. Rupert Murdoch, who turned a family-owned newspaper into a media juggernaut with the power to shape politics, announced he was retiring as chairman. He may not spend his twilight years perfecting the golf swing, however, pledging, “You can expect to see me in the office late on a Friday afternoon.” And there’s a financial incentive to encroach on those weekends. Rupert’s compensation rose 24.4%, thanks to increases in his pension. His salary stayed flat at $5 million, and he received $7.6 million in options and awards, as well as a $4.4 million bonus. Lachlan Murdoch’s compensation was unchanged. He received a $3 million base salary, $11.9 million in stock awards and options and a $4.4 million bonus. After Fox shelled out $787.5 million to settle a libel suit from Dominion Voting Systems relating to its 2020 election coverage, the company revealed it commissioned an independent review to evaluate forming a “risk oversight committee” at a stockholder’s request.

Endeavor

Endeavor
Endeavor


Ari Emanuel, CEO / executive chair and CEO, TKO Group Holdings
2023 compensation: $83.9M /+340%
Median employee compensation: $70,841
Emanuel pay ratio to median employee: 1,184

Emanuel was already a heavyweight in the arena of executive pay. In 2023, he punched his way to a massive compensation package with the merger of Endeavor-owned MMA outfit UFC with wrestling entertainment leader WWE. As CEO and executive chair of the new UFC-WWE holding company, TKO Group, the exec was awarded $64.9 million, including cash bonuses totaling $24 million and $40 million in stock (which vests over four years). His total compensation attributable to Endeavor was $18.97 million in 2023, compared with $19.1 million in 2022. Overall, he pulled down more than four times what he earned the year prior. In April, Endeavor unveiled a plan to go private in a deal with Silver Lake; Emanuel will remain CEO of Endeavor and executive chairman of WME. Once that closes, he’ll be entitled to royalty payments from WME equal to 2.5% of quarterly net cash profits. And he’ll still be paid for his services as chief exec of TKO.

Apple

Apple
Apple


Tim Cook, CEO
2023 compensation: $63.2M/-36%
Median employee compensation: $94,118
Cook pay ratio to median employee: 672

Apple still pays Cook handsomely. But after shareholders expressed concerns over rich executive payouts, it scaled back his compensation. In its 2024 proxy statement, the board praised Cook’s “outstanding leadership” as having been “crucial to Apple’s … enduring track record of innovation.” From 2021-23, Apple’s total shareholder return was more than 55% (almost 20% above the S&P 500). That said, Cook’s pay package for fiscal 2023 dropped 36% — down from nearly $100 million in each of the two previous years — after the board set his total target comp to be between the 80th and 90th percentiles relative to CEOs in the tech giant’s primary peer group. On that note, last year the board’s compensation committee added Warner Bros. Discovery to that merry band (alongside Alphabet, Amazon, Comcast, Disney, Meta, Microsoft and Netflix), reflecting Apple’s burgeoning footprint in the entertainment biz.

Amazon

Amazon
Amazon


Andy Jassy, CEO
2023 compensation: $1.36M/+4.5%
Median employee compensation: $36,274
Jassy pay ratio to median employee: 37

For a company the size of Amazon — $575 billion in sales last year — Jassy earns a paltry base salary: $365,000 in 2023, which was the salary cap for each of the e-commerce giant’s named execs. Most of Jassy’s compensation is in stock that vests over several years. While Amazon’s stock rebounded in 2023 (up 81% for the year), Jassy’s realized compensation was $29.2 million, down 12% year over year, because he had fewer shares that vested and those were at a lower stock price than in 2022. One advantage of structuring exec comp this way: Jassy’s officially reported 2023 pay package of $1.36 million looks relatively modest, especially given the average paycheck of Amazon’s 1.5 million full-time workers. In his annual letter to shareholders in April, Jassy gushed over the transformational promise of generative AI and touted Prime Video’s 2024 launch into TV advertising as “growing quickly and off to a strong start.”

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