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Looking for the next 'Lost' is a very pricey proposition

Several TV studios celebrated independents’ day this week, scoring big at the upfronts even without the help of a major network sibling.

But while many studio bosses had reason to be happy, there were strong signs coming out of this upfront that the price of success could be going up.

Thanks to hits like “24” and “Lost,” nets have become enamored with skeins featuring large, ensemble casts and feature-quality production values. But license fee costs aren’t always keeping pace with production costs, which has at least one studio chief concerned — particularly since the nets just greenlit a slew of ambitious dramas and pricey single-camera comedies.

“I believe there’s an increase in costs that’s becoming dangerous,” Touchstone prexy Mark Pedowitz warned in an interview with Daily Variety.

He said shows like “24” and “Lost” have turned many TV shows in to “mini-features.” For projects at ABC, including those not from Touchstone, “There was an almost 50% increase in (the size of) casts across the board,” Pedowitz said, adding that scripts have also become far more complex.

Rather than 35-50 scenes in an hour, a drama now often boasts as many as 60 — with pilots packing in up to 80, the Touchstone prexy said.

“It makes maintaining and controlling costs very hard,” he said. “I believe we may be coming to that wall in terms of what’s deliverable to networks, particularly if you’re trying to produce for a third party.”

Indeed, a typical one-hour drama now costs about $2.5 million to produce, according to one top studio exec. A few years ago, many dramas could still be made for around $2 million. And the pricetag for some of the more ambitious new dramas just greenlit could go as high as $3 million, the same studio exec said, declining to specify a show.

With nets loath to bump up license fees, and the domestic syndie marketplace still depressed, studios are looking to alternative revenue streams to recoup their investments as quickly as possible.

Studio execs will spend the summer negotiating deals to put their network shows on platforms from iTunes to MySpace. A DVD release of a show after just one season is now the norm.

“We’re in the middle of a digital explosion, and consumers have a strong appetite to experience television content wherever, whenever and however they want,” Warner Bros. Television Group prexy Bruce Rosenblum said. “The time is now to sit down and equitably work out prudent business models.”

That said, studio execs — like their network counterparts — are careful to stress that new-media opportunities still don’t trump good storytelling.

“No one watches any of these platforms to see a show they’re not passionate about,” said 20th prexy Gary Newman.

Of course, it’s not easy for the nets, either. The webs are relying heavily on serialized dramas this year, but those shows collapse in the ratings once they repeat. That means the nets have opted to rest skeins like “Lost” rather than repeat them during year.

But it’s only by airing repeats that the nets can usually recoup the cost of a show’s license fee.

“It’s getting tougher both on the studio and the network side,” said NBC Universal TV Studio prexy Angela Bromstad. “But it you have a successful show, it’s still a good thing.”

In a business that feels more under siege than ever, Warner Bros. TV Studios prexy Peter Roth said the changing business dynamics are actually forcing competitors to find new ways to cooperate.

“The game is getting much too hard,” he said. “We’re not just competing against one another, but we’re competing against hundreds of other entertainment choices.”

Among the nonaligned studios, Warner Bros. TV was celebrating another banner year as the scheduling dust settled on Thursday. Despite the loss of a full-fledged network partner (the WB), the Roth-led studio landed 26 series for the 2006-07 season.

That includes 11 new skeins spread among all four major webs. Ironically, the one net where Warner Bros. TV failed to score a new pickup was the CW, which its corporate parent now co-owns.

“All of us are looking to manufacture and distribute the best shows, no matter where they come from,” Roth said.

That doesn’t mean the door was shut on studios with network sibs — at least in the case of 20th Century Fox TV, which landed the most sophomore pickups of any studio, with seven.

“Our strategy has been to take projects where they belong, rather than feeling some enormous mandate to just service FBC,” said 20th Century Fox TV co-prexy Dana Walden. “Networks benefit from shows that are right for them, and the studios are seeing the benefits of having shows on the networks where they belong.”

Also, Sony Pictures TV managed to place more new skeins on the air than it had in several years. Even tiny indie Lionsgate scored its first-ever primetime pickup.

Sony Pictures TV topper Steve Mosko said it’s still not easy to be an indie, noting, for example, that the lion’s share of CBS’ programming comes from CBS Paramount Network TV and ABC’s from Touchstone. Still, he believes that working on neutral territory is making it easier to find talent.

“More producers are coming to us and saying, ‘We don’t want to have an overall deal (at an aligned studio),’ ” he said. “They want to have the flexibility to work with everyone.”

Anxious studio heads looking at their bottoms lines are also concerned about the paltry number of sitcoms making it to air. ABC, NBC, CBS and the CW will all enter the fall with just four laffers on their skeds (Fox has six). Hit comedies will still fetch more coin (and have longer staying power) in syndication, but with few smashes developed in recent years, the cupboard will be bare for years to come.

Newman said the comedy conundrum has taken on a self-fulfilling prophecy as the nets avoid scheduling them altogether.  That could be a problem, because according to CBS Par Network TV prexy David Stapf, the nets need to find a big hit to jump-start the genre.

“There’s going to be a breakout hit that comes, and then there’ll be a comedy renaissance,” he said.

Among individual producers, the Brian Grazer- and David Nevins-led Imagine TV (set up at 20th Century Fox TV) scored two high-profile pickups, “Friday Night Lights” at NBC and “Shark” at CBS (which put the show in the plum post-“CSI” slot).

Also, the folks behind Warner Bros.-based Werner-Gold-Miller had a stellar first development season, landing the comedy “20 Good Years” at NBC and “Happy Hour” at Fox.

And although Jerry Bruckheimer TV has had much bigger upfronts, the production company still got its one pilot, “Justice,” on the air at Fox and even landed a second-season pickup for its bubble skein “Close to Home” at CBS.

Reveille’s Ben Silverman managed a rare triple play, landing an hourlong skein (ABC’s “Betty the Ugly”) to even out his half-hour comedy (“The Office”) and reality (“The Biggest Loser”) presence in primetime.

The success or failure of individual studios and producers aside, one things clear: With so many outlets producing scripted series — even cablers such as IFC, Oxygen and TBS have gotten into the game — networks and studios more than ever feel they need to wow auds to get them to keep coming back each week.

“You can’t fool the viewer anymore,” Pedowitz said. “If they want to view user-generated video, they can go to YouTube.”

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