EXCLUSIVE: This is exactly the kind of information that shareholders of Big Media need to know but rarely see. It’s considered a red flag when any public company pays one of its bigwigs – usually the CEO – three times more than the average for the four other top executives which the SEC requires them to list. So I’ve taken proxy statements and done the computations and discovered that at least 16 of 35 companies failed that test. Often miserably. Nearly half of the media company compensation packages disclosed so far for 2010 show a startling degree of hero-worship as boards of directors pay their top dogs sums that far exceed what the pay was for other top execs in the company.
Stock grants accounted for big chunks of the compensation for those who top this list, including Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, DirecTV CEO Michael White, Nielsen CEO David Calhoun, and CBS chief Les Moonves. Radio station owner Entercom was off the charts: CEO David Field’s $9.1 million compensation was modest by media company standards but still 25.4 times bigger than average for the company’s other four executives. It includes $7.9 million from stock grants that only pay off if Entercom shares rise to hit certain target prices.
Still, corporate governance experts who focus on what’s often called “CEO centrality” say that an out-of-whack pay package is bad news for shareholders. It indicates that the board of directors may be in the pocket of a CEO – or believes he or she has near super-human power to help the company succeed. In either case, the board is likely to give the CEO all the credit when things go well, and blame others when they go badly. Research shows that usually hurts the stock price over time.
I’ll track this and other measures of lop-sided pay as other media companies release information for 2010. But there are a few things to keep in mind: The SEC reporting rules only cover the top-paid executives of publicly traded U.S. companies. That means we probably won’t know how much privately held Hearst pays CEO Frank Bennack, or how much Japan’s Sony pays CEO Howard Stringer. It also means that we’ll miss a lot of highly paid people who work at subsidiaries of a big company; Universal Studios’ Ron Meyer may be a big deal in Hollywood, but he was a relatively small fish last year at parent company General Electric.
To make comparisons in our list here as fair as possible, we looked at the compensation for the five most highly paid employees for 2010. Sometimes companies report the pay for more than five people — for example, when a top executive is replaced during the year a corporation will include the incoming and outgoing person’s compensation. And the pay data given the SEC can spike in a year when an executive cashes in stock or collects deferred compensation. So here’s how the companies stack up, with the top paid executive’s 2010 reported compensation and comparison to the average (median) pay for the four other highest-paid honchos:
1. Entercom: David Field. The son of company founder Joseph Field became CEO in 2002, about 15 years after leaving his job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Field made $9.1 million last year – the total of his $791,723 salary, $444,308 bonus, $7.9 million in stock, and $28,000 in other perks including medical insurance premiums. That’s a 348% raise in a year when company shares appreciated 53.2%. Though considered a strong operating executive, his salary stands out because it’s 25.4 times higher than the $358,692 average for the four other top executives listed in Entercom’s proxy statement. Field’s salary and the $3.9 million paid to CFO Stephen Fisher accounted for 93% of the $14 million that Entercom paid to its top five executives.