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Is Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav really worth $156 million a year?

Although Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK)'s board of directors seems to think so, it's increasingly hard to see how. At a time when big traditional media companies are under assault from new-media upstarts and media stock prices are slumping, it's pretty tough to justify such a lavish payout to a top executive, even if the company is still making money for the moment.

While Zaslav's pay easily tops the charts, Discovery is far from alone in its corporate largesse to its top executives. As Light Reading reported back in mid-August, most of the top 21 cable, satellite TV and other media executives in the US and Europe are getting paid very handsomely, thank you very much. In fact, the average compensation package for the media CEOs on the list rounded up to nearly $40 million in 2014. (See Here's Who's Making the Big Bucks in Cable and Cable Execs Are Minting Money.)

And last year's figures were by no means an aberration. In a recent study conducted by The Carmel Group , the average annual compensation package for the CEOs of the top ten publicly traded US media companies came to a hefty $34.5 million over the last three years. Zaslav led the way again with average annual compensation of $79 million over the three-year period, whileCBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS)'s Les Moonves ranked second with average annual pay of $62 million over the same span.

Plus, the Carmel Group study found that overall compensation for the ten media CEOs climbed at nearly a 13% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over the last three years. Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) Chairman & CEO Rob Marcus led the pack here, with his pay soaring more than 50% a year over the period, closely followed by Zaslav with 46% annual growth.

The study makes the case that some of the big media CEOs may be worth their fat pay checks because of the financial returns they have produced for their companies. For instance, the study found that Dish Network LLC(Nasdaq: DISH) Chairman & CEO Charlie Ergen, former DirecTV CEO Mike White and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) Chairman & CEO Brian Roberts delivered the biggest bangs for the bucks spent on them the last three years.

But the overall impression the study leaves is that most of these guys (and they are all middle-aged or older men) are paid far more than they should be, and certainly more than their peers in other major industries. In one comparison cited in the report, for instance, the average annual compensation package for the CEOs in the US healthcare/pharmaceutical sector amounted to $13.7 million over the last three years. While that's definitely not chump change by any means, it's barely more than one third of the average amount that the top media CEOs commanded.

In an interview with Light Reading, Carmel Group Chairman and Chief Service Officer Jimmy Schaeffler said he was surprised that the top media executives "were able to lobby shareholders and board of director members to obtain such high compensation amounts." He's also surprised that since the study was released over the summer, no stockholder group from any of these companies has contacted him for more information so they could challenge the generous executive pay packages.

"I thought I'd get a call [from a Discovery stockholders group]," he said. "But I have not gotten any such call."

Schaeffler cites a number of possible factors behind the high media payouts. These factors include the close ties between the media business and Wall Street, the strong influence these mainly charismatic executives exert over their boards, a long tradition of high media salaries and a lack of checks and balances on the company boards. He also believes media companies may have lost sight of how they much they really need to shell out for talented executives.

But, with traditional media powers like Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX) now desperately fighting defensive battles to fend off such relative upstarts asNetflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), the days of bloated media CEO salaries could well be numbered. As their companies increasingly slip and slide in the new media economy, it will likely be awfully tough for the top executives to keep commanding such high compensation packages. Which would be a good thing.

"We may very well have seen the peak," Schaeffler said. "This study is probably the last time you'll see anything nearly that high."

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