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How Realistic is TV?

How Realistic is TV?

Author: Amee Wittbrodt
  • Understand, analyze, evaluate, and use different types of print, digital, and multimodal media.
  • Critically analyze information found in electronic, print, and mass media and use a variety of these sources.
  • Consider how jobs are portrayed on television and the impact this unrealistic presentation has on viewers.

This short packet offers a glimpse into how jobs are unrealistically portrayed on TV and asks students to think about and explain the effect this has on viewers. Does television have a responsibility to portray reality?

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Background Information

Are TV Characters' Salaries Realistic?


Think back: When was the last time you saw Carrie Bradshaw chopping vegetables or preheating an oven to cook herself dinner on "Sex and the City?" How about shopping on the clearance rack or setting foot inside a discount store?

Nope, Carrie is a Prada-buying, cosmopolitan-drinking, Manolo Blahnik-collecting kind of girl. She eats out constantly, resides in a roomy one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, and never seems to think twice before slapping down her credit card for more designer duds.

Even her job - sex columnist for a New York City newspaper - is glamorous. But don't let the "Sex and the City" writers fool you: Carrie's annual columnist salary wouldn't come close to affording her that luxurious lifestyle (trust me). According to, a New York City journalist with 10 years of experience earns a median annual salary of about $57,000.

From Orange County to Wisteria Lane, TV characters always seem to be well-dressed, debt-free and driving expensive cars up to their pristine homes. But despite their alluring jobs, most of these characters would be solidly middle-class in the real world.

Here's a look at how much your favorite TV characters would really be bringing home each year:

  • Simon Cowell, American Idol Judge/Talent Scout
    Salary: $34 million, according to the London Daily Mirror. Even though Cowell is a real person, his stratospheric salary is far from typical. According to, the average Hollywood talent agent with 25 years of experience would make $30,600.
  • Dexter Morgan, Dexter Forensics expert
    Real-life median salary: $47,680, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) only uses his job as a forensic blood spatter analyst as a cover for his night-time job -- as a serial killer who kills bad guys. Even though he earns a decent amount, we're pretty sure money is not his top priority -- it's getting rid of the bad guys.

  • Christian Troy, Nip/Tuck Plastic Surgeon
    Real-life median salary: $156,500, according to Although Troy's partnership is considered to be the best private practice in Miami, he would need a loftier-than-average salary to afford his fast cars and expensive suits.

  • Michael Bluth, Arrested Development Acting Company President
    Real-life median salary: $140,350, according to the BLS. Top executives can bring home the big bucks, but thanks to Bluth's father's dubious accounting practices, his paycheck might be a bit paltrier.

  • Sandy Cohen, The O.C. Lawyer
    Real-life median salary: $94,930, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While a nearly six-figure median salary is nothing to scoff at, the typical lawyer can't afford an oceanfront mansion and pool house.

  • Homer Simpson, The Simpsons Nuclear Safety Inspector
    Real-life median salary: about $64,000 for nuclear power reactor operators, according to the BLS. So that's how Homer affords all that beer...

  • Elliot Stabler, Law & Order: SVU Detective
    Real-life median salary: about $54,000, according to the BLS.

  • Sydney Bristow, Alias CIA Agent/Investigator
    Real-life median salary: around $50,000. The CIA keeps its salaries top-secret, but estimates the typical starting salary for a CIA agent is between $34,000 and $52,000.

  • Gil Grissom, CSI Forensic Scientist
    Real-life median salary: about $44,000, according to the BLS.

  • Grace Adler, Will and Grace Interior Designer
    Real-life median salary: about $40,700, according to the BLS. Maybe Grace should be working for her rich, lazy assistant Karen, instead.

  • Susan Mayer, Desperate Housewives Children's Book Illustrator
    Real-life median salary: $38,060, according to the BLS. Money might be a little tight for this single mother on Wisteria Lane.

  • John "JD" Dorian, Scrubs Medical Resident
    Real-life median salary: $37,000, according to an American Medical Association Report. If you break his salary down hourly, it just gets worse.

Source: Laura Morsch,

Discussion Questions

  1. The above article shows that many TV characters' salaries aren't exactly realistic. How could this unrealistic portrayal have a negative impact on viewers?
  2. The majority of media is meant to entertain. Most TV viewers can distinguish between fiction and reality. But even so, does media have an obligation to portray reality? Explain.