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A lot at stake at TV upfronts

Still no deal in place at Fox to bring back 'Bones'

It’s reboot time at the networks.

As a smaller-than-usual contingent of network execs, agents and talent head to New York for the annual upfront presentations, a few key issues are on their minds — starting with what has become the TV biz’s economic reality.

Asked how tight belts are getting around town, one agent took it a step further: “It’s around our necks,” he said.

As the countdown to upfront week begins, it’s become clear that the nets’ ability to squeeze cost savings out of above-the-line creatives will largely dictate which new and returning shows wind up on the schedules next week.

The nets, which are facing the roughest advertising sales environment in years, are playing hardball, particularly on bubble shows that start looking more attractive once the pricetag drops.

In some cases, nets and studios (which, of course, are increasingly one and the same) are asking for fee reductions of as much as 20% from above-the-line talent.

“It’s easy to get some to reduce their fees, but difficult to get others,” one insider said. The networks and studios “have all the cards, and they’re playing them.”

As for license fees, the networks continue to squeeze the studios — and the studios are attempting to hold the line by preemptively shopping their shows elsewhere.

And it’s not just bubble shows caught up in a tug-of-war. Just days before Fox was set to hold its Monday afternoon upfront meeting in New York, the net still didn’t have a deal in place to bring back “Bones” — despite the fact that it’s from sister 20th Century Fox TV and that the show has helped turn the Thursday night lights back on at the network.

“Bones” is about to enter its fifth season, which usually reps the moment a show’s license fee skyrockets as the studio looks to recoup its initial investment. And in this economic climate, the networks are looking to limit those big cost jumps as much as possible.

At issue: Because it’s an internal deal between two News Corp. companies, the number shouldn’t matter too much — but with profit participants involved, the conglom has to make sure they’re onboard first.

Hence a tough negotiation — and the first major back-and-forth between the two sides since the Peter Chernin umbrella was removed. Insiders said 20th Century Fox TV made a few exploratory calls to see what the show might fetch elsewhere — but they stress that ultimately they expect a deal will be done, possibly by this morning.

A slightly similar situation played out with CBS’ “Ghost Whisperer,” another show entering its fifth year this fall. ABC was approached about the show in case producers ABC Studios and CBS Paramount couldn’t come to a deal with the Eye; ultimately, an agreement was made, but not before a lot of back-and-forth.

And Warner Bros. TV took “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to ABC for a second year in a row, securing a backup order in case both sides couldn’t iron out a renewal.

Of course, most of that gamesmanship is part of the negotiating process, and it’s doubtful any of those shows would have actually moved. But that kind of maneuvering is becoming more common as dealmaking gets tougher.

Meanwhile, the negotiation that seems to be getting the most attention in the blogosphere — Warner Bros. TV’s attempts to get “Chuck” renewed on NBC — was finally under way on Thursday. Insiders expected some sort of positive resolution soon.

Execs are leaving no stones unturned in finding ways to cut costs. ABC and sister ABC Studios this week were kicking around the possibility of changing the way single-camera laffers “Samantha Who?” and “Scrubs” are produced.

In one scenario, both shows would be shot with multiple cameras (or a hybrid of both single- and multicam), much the way 20th Century Fox TV produces “How I Met Your Mother” for CBS.

In the case of “Mother,” the show is shot on a soundstage with multiple cameras, but over the course of four days and sans a studio audience. That way, “Mother” can still employ some of the tricks of a single-camera comedy — but on a multicamera budget.

By shifting to multicamera, and making other changes, ABC is hoping to shave as much as $500,000 per episode off the “Samantha” budget.

“Samantha” is expected to return, especially since ABC still has seven episodes in the can — which means the net won’t have to pick up a full 22 episodes for next season.

“Samantha” might not have been in this predicament earlier this season, but the show saw its audience diminish greatly once it moved to Thursdays in the midseason. Series was eventually yanked two weeks earlier than expected this spring.

Meanwhile, in potentially switching the production methods on “Scrubs,” creator Bill Lawrence was said to also be kicking around various ideas to evolve the show — such as following one of the characters as he or she moves to a different hospital or medical school.

Other burning questions as the nets continue to shape their skeds: How aggressive will the nets frame their schedules for fall?

Each network appears to be willing to make one major move, but they are hinting at stability beyond that.

“The only people who can be aggressive is CBS,” one rival webhead said.

Eye will likely give a 10 p.m. upgrade to “The Mentalist” — but whether it stays on Tuesday or moves to the plum Thursday slot was anyone’s guess. Ditto whether or not CBS will opt to pair the “NCIS” spinoff with the original.

It’s also still up in the air how much reality TV will actually make it on next week’s announced schedules.

It’s no secret that advertisers prefer to buy scripted series, and that frequently means the nets hold back on scheduling their alternative series until the first round of frosh skeins wind up DOA.

That’s why, for example, the initial faceoff on Friday nights may be all scripted. But it probably won’t be long until already picked-up shows like “Wife Swap” make a return.

A few reality staples are a given for fall; it’s just a question of how they’re scheduled. NBC is still mulling whether to split “The Biggest Loser” into two nights — depending on whether the show can find a way to conjure up two big moments in the same week.

Also at stake in that scenario: The second hour of “Loser” is the stronger of the two; by splitting the show in two, the net may be giving up a whole ratings point.

“The biggest question is really how NBC is going to fit all their stuff in,” one exec said. “It seems like they’d be nuts to truncate their best show, ‘Biggest Loser.’ ”

It’s also still unknown whether ABC will put both “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor” on Mondays, and if so, if a sitcom would be sandwiched in between the two.

NBC execs have said they’re be willing to put gritty dramas “Law and Order: SVU” or “Southland” at 8 p.m. — but would that go over well with advertisers, let alone the Peacock sales staff?

Then there’s talk that Fox is looking to bring another big reality franchise in season — with some speculating that summer staple “So You Think You Can Dance” may score an extra run, perhaps in late fall.

On the comedy side, the buzz has been strong for early pickups such as “Community” and “Modern Family,” and ABC appears most likely among the nets to pick up a slew of laffers. But it remains to be seen how confident the nets are on a comedy turnaround and how much real estate they actually commit to comedy.

CBS will likely stick with three hours of sitcoms, while NBC has its two-hour Thursday block. Fox will likely have one hour of live-action comedy at most, while ABC could potentially air two hours as well. That would be a big improvement from last fall, when the Alphabet net entered the fall with just one half-hour — “Samantha Who?”

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