CEO pay has been going in one direction for the past three years: up.

Pay check

Other findings from AP’s U.S. CEO pay analysis:

BANK ON IT: Among the 6 megabanks, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf knocked off JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon as best-paid banker. Stumpf’s pay grew 8 percent to $19.3 million.

TV NATION: If CEO pay says anything about U.S. values, then we love TV. In addition to Les Moonves of CBS ($60.3 million) and David Zaslav of Discovery ($49.9 million) taking the top spots, Bob Iger of Disney ($37.1 million) was No. 3; Philippe Dauman of MTV owner Viacom ($33.4 million) was No. 4; and Brian Roberts of NBC owner Comcast ($29.1 million) was No. 6.

rest of top 10: No. 5 John Donahoe of eBay ($29.7 million); No. 7 Howard Schultz of Starbucks ($28.9 million). Behind them were Ken Chenault of American Express ($28 million), Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil ($27.2 million) and Kent Thiry of DaVita HealthCare ($26.8 million).

POWER AND PERKS: Wynn Resorts kept a suite at its tony Las Vegas resort open for CEO Steve Wynn, a perk valued at $452,000. IBM let retired CEO Samuel Palmisano, keep an office and renovated it for $1 million.

SHAREHOLDER REVOLUTION?: So far this year, only seven U.S. companies have had shareholders vote down CEO pay packages, according to proxy adviser Glass Lewis. That compares with 56 last year.

The head of a typical large public company made $9.7 million in 2012, a 6.5 percent increase from a year earlier that was aided by a rising stock market, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using data from Equilar, an executive pay research firm.

CEO pay, which fell two years straight during the last recession but rose 24 percent in 2010 and 6 percent in 2011, has never been higher.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. After years of pressure from corporate governance activists unhappy about big payouts, many companies have revamped their compensation formulas. They have awarded a bigger chunk of compensation in stock to align pay more closely to performance, become more transparent about how compensation decisions are made and in some cases promised to claw back pay from fired executives.

Shareholder activists say the changes are a step in the right direction, yet they argue that CEO pay is too high and that there is still too much incentive to focus on short-term results.

The highest paid CEO was Les Moonves of CBS, who made $60.3 million. He beat the second-place finisher handily: David Zaslav of Discovery Communications, who made $49.9 million. Five of the 10 highest-paid CEOs were from the entertainment and media industry.

For the fourth year in five, health care CEOs received the highest median pay at $11.1 million, while utility CEOs had the lowest at $7.5 million. The median value is the midpoint; half the CEOs in that group made more and half less.

The median pay for women CEOs was higher than it was for men — $11.2 million compared with $9.6 million — although only 3 percent of the companies analyzed were run by women. Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez International, the snack giant that was spun off from Kraft Foods last year, was the highest-paid female CEO, taking in $22 million.

Stock in trade

The biggest changes in compensation last year came from stock, which increased 17.2 percent, and from stock options, which declined by 16 percent.

Over the past five years, the amount of compensation that comes from stock has risen from 31.7 percent to 44.3 percent, while the amount from stock options has fallen from 31.9 percent to 17.6 percent. Shareholders tend to favor stock compensation because it can be tied to metrics like revenue and earnings, whereas the value of stock options depends only on the stock price.

Salary and perks rose last year while bonuses fell. As a proportion of total pay, bonuses accounted for 23.8 percent, salary 10.4 percent and perks 3.8 percent.

The third straight year of rising pay coincided with an improving economy and an increase in corporate revenue, profits and stock prices.

The median profit increase at the companies in the Equilar study was 6.1 percent, and the median revenue gain was 7.6 percent. Companies say they need to pay CEOs well so they can attract the best talent, and that this is in the interest of shareholders. But shareholder activists and some corporate governance experts say many CEOs are being paid far above what is reasonable.

Pay for all U.S. workers rose 1.6 percent last year — not enough to keep up with inflation. The median wage in the U.S. was about $39,900 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Performance based

Companies say they are listening to concerns. They point to changes in how CEOs are rewarded that are meant to tie pay more closely to company performance. For example, they’re more often linking stock awards to revenue, earnings and share price targets.

“I’ve never seen an environment where boards take more time trying to get this right,” says Charlie Tharp of the Center on Executive Compensation.

Pay is up partly because a bigger proportion is coming from stock, and stock markets are hitting all-time highs. But it’s a two-way street: If stock markets decline, pay could decline or at least grow more slowly.

Charles Elson, a well-known shareholder rights expert who is director at the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, has been crusading for companies to stop compensating their CEOs based on what their peers at similar companies are making. The trouble with peer groups, Elson says, is that a CEO could have a terrible year, “but if my peer’s pay goes up, my pay will, too.”