Zombie drama The Walking Dead is officially the most-watched series on US television - and yet the show's cast earn a fraction of the massive pay cheques commanded by actors on other top-rated shows.

The show's two biggest stars, Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus, until this year earned US$90,000 and $80,000 per episode respectively - pocketing between $1.44 and $1.28 million per 16-episode season.

Crazy money for anyone not in Hollywood, certainly, but consider this: It's a remarkably low figure compared to the salaries pocketed by many of their TV peers.

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead. Photo / AMC
Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead. Photo / AMC

During their most recent season, the three main stars of The Big Bang Theory earned $22 million apiece, while NCIS star Mark Harmon earned $16.5 million. Even Gilmore Girls stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel were paid $3 million each for that show's brief four-episode Netflix reboot.

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So the two biggest stars in the biggest show on US TV are earning, by conservative estimates, less than one-tenth they would if they were on a hit sitcom or crime procedural.

Why?

Uproxx has investigated the startlingly low salaries for the show's cast - the other core cast members are believed to be earning much less than Lincoln and Reedus - and offers a pretty simple theory for the discrepancy.

One might assume that, with its large ensemble cast, The Walking Dead's producers simply can't afford to pay all its actors 'market rates', this seems unlikely given the five main cast members on HBO's Game of Thrones - another ensemble show - earn half a million dollars per episode.

Game of Thrones has no trouble paying its ensemble cast, so why should the Walking Dead? Photo / HBO
Game of Thrones has no trouble paying its ensemble cast, so why should the Walking Dead? Photo / HBO

And money shouldn't really be a problem: The Walking Dead has nearly doubled its US network AMC's advertising revenue since it debuted in 2010. It pulls in more advertising money than any other series on TV - and that's before lucrative merchandising revenue is taken into account. Any way you look at it, the show is a cash cow.

The real reason for the low salaries may lie with the very nature of the show: Bloody and brutal, the zombie-ruled universe of The Walking Dead is a place where anyone can be killed at any time ... even the most beloved of characters.

"The Walking Dead can kill any cast member it wants at any time, meaning that rather than give in to the salary demands of the cast (there was speculation the cast rallied together to ask for a raise in 2014), it can kill off expensive characters at its leisure.

"Indeed, doing so will not only save the series money, but it may give the show a ratings boost," notes Uproxx, citing a TV Guide article which says that "killing off major characters ... has become an effective way to keep salaries in line on shows with large ensemble casts."

It's hard to ask for a raise when you know it might just sign your televised death warrant, and The Walking Dead is a show where every character can be proven dispensable.

However, seven seasons in, it seems at least Walking Dead leads Lincoln and Reedus have been able to convince studio bosses of their worth and pocket themselves a bigger share of that sweet TV money.

For the show's seventh and eighth seasons, the pair renegotiated their contracts to make $650,000 and $550,000 per episode respectively.