BANFF, Alta. - When "Lost" airs its final episode next year, it won't just be the end of the popular serial.

Jack Bender - a producer and director on the hit drama - says it'll likely mark the end of epic TV shows in general, at least for awhile.

"It's going to be one of the last huge television shows in terms of size of cast and scope of production," predicts Bender, in town to lead a master class at the Banff World Television Festival.

"Given the fact that network television is changing, it may be one of the last great rides of this kind of big epic storytelling."

This he attributes to a combination of factors: the collapsed economy, what the networks are looking for in new programming, and the sheer cost of mounting a show like "Lost."

Since it shoots in Hawaii, where sets and materials must be flown in, the expense is significant, notes Bender.

"Lost" wraps its puzzling storyline with 18 episodes next winter and its creators have repeatedly promised that all will be resolved by the time the last hour has aired.

"There will be an ending to our show and I trust it will be a stimulating, satisfying ending," says the bespectacled Bender, acknowledging at the same time that for much of its life, the series was known for infuriating twists that seemed to go nowhere.

"This show needs to be building toward a story finish. The audience can't feel like the creative wheels are spinning and critically, there were times during the seasons before ... where we were critically, and in terms of our audience, getting busted for spinning wheels a little bit."

Season 5 wrapped up last month with the long-awaited appearance of the mythical Jacob, an explosive bid by Jack to erase the past (or was that the future?), and Locke's identity muddled.

Likening the series to a large literary work comprised of six books, Bender says the plot will close definitively next year. No window will remain open for a movie, or some cheesy comeback.

Bender says TV's thematic pendulum is swinging away from serial television towards more stand-alone dramas. Procedurals are popular with networks, he notes, because it's easier for audiences to drop in at any time.

"That's not to say there won't be another great big old show that is a serialized show in the future," he says. "But for awhile I think it's going to be smaller and more procedural."

That said, Bender predicts a robust life for "Lost" after its TV run, noting its serial format lends itself well to what's become a lucrative arm for the industry.

"The life of 'Lost' will eventually be viewed on DVDs and it will be read and viewed like a big novel," he says.

Bender also credits the advent of technologies like personal video recorders, digital downloads and broadband viewing with keeping audiences tuned in through the twists and turns of the series. He credits online fandom in particular with generating continual buzz about "Lost."

"I think 'Lost' in many ways was the first big Internet success story on television because the game of our show (is that) people play it once our show is over. You know, people talk about it all week, write about it, argue about it. So in many ways the Internet was part of the success of our show."

As for details on the final season, Bender reveals nothing. He does say that despite there never being a "big grand plan," the writers have known "for a while" what the ultimate ending would be.

"We love toying with the audience, we love the complexity of the storytelling and the fact things are building toward a finish and not getting there too soon," admits Bender.

"By calling it quits at the end of Season 6, which no hit television show has ever done historically, especially a show that's had this worldwide success, popularity.... it allowed (executive producers) Damon (Lindelof) and Carlton (Cuse) and the rest of our writer/producers to really guide the show toward a creative, satisfying ending, which we've been doing."