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To Keep TV Shows Afloat, Some Networks Are Cutting Actors’ Pay

Starring on the CBS sitcom “Bob Hearts Abishola” has been good for Bayo Akinfemi. Being a regular cast member for four years has given him financial security and made him a star in his native Nigeria, where the show is wildly popular. It even helped him branch out from acting, when producers gave him the opportunity to direct an episode.

But Mr. Akinfemi and 10 of his castmates were told this year that the only way the half-hour show was going to get a fifth season was if budgets were cut. How the actors were paid was going to change.

No longer would they be guaranteed pay for all 22 episodes of a season. Instead, Mr. Akinfemi and his castmates would be reclassified as recurring cast members. They would be paid the same amount per episode, but unlike regular cast members, they would be paid only for the episodes in which they appeared and would be guaranteed only five of those in a truncated 13-episode season, once the actors’ strike was over and performers returned to work. (Only Billy Gardell, who plays the white middle-aged businessman Bob, and Folake Olowofoyeku, who plays Abishola, the Nigerian nurse he loves, will remain series regulars.)

“It was a bit surprising, for all of 10 seconds,” Mr. Akinfemi said in an interview before SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, went on strike. “We are disappointed, but we also understand at the end of the day it’s a business.”

For decades, actors playing supporting characters on successful network television shows have been able to renegotiate their contracts in later seasons and reap financial windfalls. But this is a new era for network TV.

It’s a business that has been struggling with depressed ratings, decreased advertising revenue and fierce competition from streaming services, resulting in millions of viewers cutting their cable subscriptions. And one way networks and production companies are trying to deal with the changing economics is to ask the casts of some long-running shows to take pay cuts.

“The glory days of linear television are sadly behind us,” said Channing Dungey, the chairwoman and chief executive of Warner Bros. Television Studios, the studio behind “Bob Hearts Abishola.”

This new reality in network television is one of the reasons behind the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes. Those on strike say the economics of the streaming era have effectively reduced their pay and cut into money they get from residuals, a type of royalty. The studios say they aren’t making the kind of money they used to, meaning that they’re having to shave costs wherever they can.

The sides are at a standstill. The writers haven’t spoken to the studios since going out on strike on May 2, and the actors haven’t since walking out on July 14. No negotiations are scheduled.

“Blue Bloods,” a CBS drama starring Tom Selleck, is returning for its 14th season only because the entire cast agreed to a 25 percent pay cut when the strike is over. On the CW network, “Superman & Lois,” which is entering its fourth season, and “All American: Homecoming,” which is hanging on for a third season, saw their budgets cut and cast members reduced to day players or eliminated.

Not even the juggernaut represented by Dick Wolf’s lineup of shows on NBC is immune. A number of the actors on shows like “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Fire” are being guaranteed appearances in fewer episodes for the coming season, according to two people familiar with the productions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

“This is something that’s happening across the board,” Ms. Dungey said, adding that CBS wanted to renew “Bob Hearts Abishola” only if Warner Bros. was able to produce it for the network at a reduced cost. “There are a number of different shows, both on CBS and elsewhere, where the same kinds of considerations are coming into play.”

CBS and NBC declined to comment.

Word of the salary adjustments for “Bob Hearts Abishola” came out in late April, just days before SAG-AFTRA authorized its strike with a 97.9 percent vote in favor.

“This is the beginning of the end for working-class actors,” the actress Ever Carradine, who has been in shows like “Commander in Chief” on ABC and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” wrote on Twitter at the time. “I have never worked harder in my career to make less money, and I am not alone.”

Today, first-time series regulars often earn anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 an episode, depending on the budget of the show, the size of the role, and the studio or network that’s footing the bill. Commissions for agents and management are subtracted from those sums.

To some, the recent reductions are an inevitable correction from the era of peak television, when studios were eager to lure talent with lucrative contracts. Some executives argue that paring back salaries will ultimately allow more shows to be made, at a more reasonable price.

Network shows do not draw anywhere close to the viewer numbers they did when 20 million people were watching “Seinfeld” and “Friends” every week in the 1990s.

At the end of its fourth season, “Bob Hearts Abishola” was averaging 6.9 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen’s Live +35 metric, which measures the first 35 days of viewing on both linear and digital platforms. Hits had bigger audiences, like CBS’s “Ghosts,” which averaged 11 million viewers over 35 days, and ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” which averaged 9.1 million.

But the rise of streaming has cannibalized network television on a scale the networks weren’t prepared for, and not even scaling back on scripted offerings has been enough to stem the bleeding. “Bob Hearts Abishola” is one of four prime-time scripted comedies left on CBS.

“It is hard now to get shows to Seasons 5 and beyond, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen,” Ms. Dungey said. “It just is less likely to happen as often as it did in the past.”

Yet the new reality means actors must decide whether to remain on a show at a reduced rate but with some job security or leave to see if they can find other jobs.

The management team for Kelly Jenrette, an actress on the CW’s “All American: Homecoming,” told the trade publication Deadline that she had chosen to become a recurring character rather than “opt for a return as a series regular on reduced episodic guarantees.”

Ms. Jenrette declined to be interviewed because, she said, she was told that doing so would violate the actors’ union’s ban on promoting projects associated with struck companies. The CW declined to comment.

For some, the pride they take in their shows is also an enticement to stay. On “Bob Hearts Abishola,” Mr. Akinfemi plays Goodwin, an employee of Bob’s compression sock company who was on his way to becoming an economics professor in Nigeria before he left the country.

Fans have stopped him in the Nigerian airport, in the streets of Toronto, even at the CVS near his home in Los Angeles to marvel that whole scenes of the show are spoken in Mr. Akinfemi’s native Yoruba tongue. (He also serves as the language consultant for the sitcom.)

“The idea that there could be a show like this that really showcases Nigerian culture, it’s just unfathomable,” Mr. Akinfemi said. “That we are really representing Nigerian culture as accurately as possible and in a positive light, on American television, is mind-blowing to a lot of Nigerians and Africans.”

He and the 10 other cast members affected by the pay changes on “Bob Hearts Abishola” all chose to stay.

“These actors are attached to good, important, groundbreaking work,” said Tash Moseley, Mr. Akinfemi’s manager. “I think they knew that the actors would come back and do it no matter what.”

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