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Image: Tyra Banks
Amy Sussman  /  Getty Images file
Tyra Banks is the top earning woman on prime-time television. The "America's Next Top Model" host earned $30 million during a 12-month period.
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updated 10/12/2009 8:07:54 PM ET 2009-10-13T00:07:54

There was a time when million-dollar paychecks were something of the norm among top television talent on Hollywood lots. Stars of hit TV shows from “Seinfeld” and “Friends” to “Mad about You” and “Frasier” walked away with at least this much on a per-episode basis.

But with growing options and irreversible digitalization, the days of big ratings and the paydays that come with them are a thing of the past. Add plummeting advertising revenue and it’s no surprise TV executives are taking a hard line on salaries. (Proof: “Law and Order: SVU’s” Mariska Hargitay and co-star Chris Meloni appeared dangerously close to losing their jobs as a bitter and protracted salary dispute raged on this past spring.) To compensate, the genre’s leading ladies are finding other ways — and mediums — to beef up their income.

In fact, thanks to increasingly diversified portfolios, the stars on our list of prime-time’s top-earning women collectively raked in an estimated $116 million between June 1, 2008, and June 1, 2009. (Earnings are calculated before taxes, management fees and other costs; voice-only actresses were omitted from the list.) In addition to starring roles on broadcast TV, many have found ways to pad their resumes and pocketbooks with film roles, production projects and endorsement deals.

Among them: “America’s Next Top Model’s” Tyra Banks, who lands atop our list with estimated earnings of $30 million during the 12-month period. The supermodel turned super-personality serves up her unscripted model competition series on the CW as well an eponymous daytime talk show (also on the CW) and frequent cameos (most recently, on “Gossip Girl”). Off camera, Banks acts as a producer on a host of shows, from ABC’s “True Beauty” to the CW’s since-canceled “Stylista.”

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No. 2 Katherine Heigl banked an estimated $18 million over the course of the year, care of television, film and endorsement ventures. Though the outspoken actress has garnered critics with her controversial stances on roles in both “Grey’s Anatomy” (she famously withdrew from the Emmy competition last year, arguing her part didn’t warrant a nod) and “Knocked Up” (she blasted her career-launching film for being sexist), she remains a big draw on both the big and small screen. In fact, she’s one of few women who can carry a film, particularly impressive given her TV background.

And it’s much the same for others on the list, including “Desperate Housewives’” Eva Longoria Parker (No. 4), “The New Adventures of Old Christine’s” Julia Louis-Dreyfus (No. 6) and “30 Rock’s” Tina Fey (No. 8), who pulled down an estimated $9 million, $8 million and $7 million, respectively. Like Heigl, these actresses have parlayed their small-screen success into lucrative endorsements, lofty book deals and big-budget films.

“If you hit a homerun (on television) you will be rewarded,” explains one longtime manager of top talent. “But you used to make great money for mediocrity, and those days are over.”

Rather, being part of a TV show that generates both sizable short-term ad revenue and long-term syndication value is increasingly rare as options proliferate and tech-savvy viewers turn to other platforms like DVRs and the Web to consume them. What’s more, with additional ancillary revenue streams like DVDs drying up, Jerry Seinfeld-era paydays (the sitcom star one earned $1 million per episode plus tens of millions in back-end profits) are no longer practical, much less expected.

Hardest hit in the new digital world order is the mid-level talent. While bold-face names can still lure big — or at least bigger — bucks thanks to their marketing power in an otherwise crowded marketplace, the second-tier folks who work with them have seen their jobs squeezed and rates cut. The worst part is that they have no choice, laments a high-powered entertainment lawyer: “People want to work,” he says, “and they’re willing to take less to do so.”

As another veteran talent agent puts it, “television has become a business of the haves and have-nots.” And while the leading ladies on our list fall within the former, they pale in comparison to the “haves” of television past.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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