Reuters

BOSTON

Investors in some top U.S. media companies have had a rough ride as their shares have lagged the rest of the market. You just wouldn’t know it if you looked at the bank accounts of their top executives. The CEOs of 11 major media companies were given median compensation of $32.9 million for 2014, much higher than any other industry group in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, according to regulatory filings posted in the first four months of this year and analyzed by executive pay consulting firm Farient Advisors for Reuters. Food & staples retailers came in a distant second at $24.5 million.

It is set to be the seventh successive year media industry executives come out on top - figures before 2008 are not comparable because of the way pensions and stock options are disclosed. In many of the years, media company stocks were outperforming the broader market as revenue and earnings surged. Last year, though, the median total return of the 11 companies was 10.76 percent against 13.69 percent for the S&P 500 as a whole. The weakness reflects more challenging times in much of the business, with advertising growth stuttering and the increasing amounts of video delivered and viewed over the Internet upsetting a cozy business model for program makers and the traditional pay-TV distributers, such as cable companies.

Many companies justify big awards by stressing difficulty retaining top talent in a competitive market.

But some compensation experts say there is another explanation - a number of the major media companies are controlled by top executives and their families, which means boards don’t have to worry much about objections from other shareholders. CEOs at companies with less family influence benefit anyway because boards tend to benchmark pay against their major rivals.

Robert McCormick, chief policy officer of proxy adviser Glass Lewis & Co, said the controlling shareholders ‘can pay whatever they want,’ and disregard views of other shareholders. For example, Sumner Redstone, 91, controls about 80 percent of the voting shares in CBS and Viacom through a holding company.

So far this year, the CEOs of Discovery Communications Inc , CBS, Walt Disney Co and Viacom accounted for the first, third, fourth and fifth spots among the five highest-paid CEOs across the S&P 500. The only non-media CEO in that group was Steven Mollenkopf of telecom technology company Qualcomm Inc, who was second.

Often in the media industry, ‘the pay is not reflecting the performance,’ said Michael McCauley, senior officer for the Florida State Board of Administration, which manages pension assets for Florida state and other local authority employees, and holds shares in all four of these media companies. The Florida agency earlier this year cast its advisory votes ‘against’ Disney’s executive compensation even though Disney’s shares have been climbing. McCauley cited concerns about a feature that would award Disney CEO Robert Iger as much as an additional $60 million if Disney hits certain targets through 2018. Iger received $46.5 million in the year ended Sept 27.

Disney spokesman David Jefferson said 92 percent of Iger’s pay is performance-based. He also noted the company’s shares are trading near record highs and that the company has returned more than $51 billion to stockholders through share repurchases and dividends on Iger’s watch since 2005. To be sure, not all major U.S. media companies gave their CEOs big pay rises even when their shares did well. For example, Time Warner Inc’s total return for shareholders was around 30 percent in 2014 but compensation for CEO Jeffrey Bewkes rose 1 percent to $32.9 million.