HBO moved quickly to cancel “Luck” after the deaths of three horses, rather than risk tarnishing its brand
In cancelling its hobbled race-track drama "Luck" on Wednesday, HBO contained a scandal that threatened to not only overtake one of its most high-profile shows, but tarnish a brand it has spent decades building.
Three dead horses — killed at a higher rate than in the sport "Luck" portrays — gave the network a compelling reason to exit a series that disappointed despite an all-star pedigree.
Euthanizing the show was a radical decision that HBO made with surprising swiftness. It also scored the network public-relations points for showing concern about the the welfare of animals.
But the decision was certainly easier given the show's unremarkable ratings. A December preview of "Luck" drew 1.1 million viewers, with an additional 1.1 million tuning in for the official premiere in January.
The December airing shed nearly two-thirds of its lead-in, the second-season finale of "Boardwalk Empire," which drew 3 million viewers.
Ratings are nowhere near as important to a subscriber-based network like HBO as they are to an ad-supported one. But ratings are, of course, an indication of what the subscribers like.
The presence of Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann helped hide the fact that the subject matter of "Luck," the so-called Sport of Kings, was a hard sell from the beginning.
Horse racing has been on the decline for a decade, and has struggled to capture a more mainstream audience. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company said as much recently, noting that only 35 percent of Thoroughbred racing fans considered themselves "proud" fans, compared to 66 percent for other sports.
The figure reflects the love-hate feelings of many who go to the track. There are those who love the splendor of hooves clopping through mud on a crisp morning. And then there are degenerate gamblers like those portrayed on "Luck." Nothing scares off the casual fan like the sight of the white curtain being pulled around a fallen horse, so that a veterinarian can give it the shot that will put it out of its misery.
Why then, did HBO greenlight "Luck"?
Because of the people involved. Milch created "Deadwood," one of HBO's most-admired series. Mann directed films including "The Insider" and "Heat" and produced NBC's "Miami Vice." Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte are, well, Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.
All of them expressed their excitement that HBO let them do pretty much whatever they wanted. And they milked it. Milch's dialogue followed the "Wire" rule of exposition – explain as little as possible – in a show about a sport that requires a lot of explaining.
Milch has been fascinated by horseracing since his father began taking him to the track when he was a boy. HBO gave him a place to examine his lifelong fixation.
But the show represents a notable failure for the auteur model of television, in which a network gives a creator the freedom to do largely as he or she pleases.
In January, the Oscar-winning Hoffman said he was turning from features to the small screen because of the creative freedom afforded at networks like HBO.
"With HBO, once they give a go, there is no committee, there's no meetings, these guys are allowed to try to do their best work and they then give it to us," Hoffman said, referring to Milch and Mann.
The cancellation isn't merely about ratings, of course, or "Luck" would never have been given a vote of confidence by the network, when it ordered a second season soon after the show's debut.
But that second season would have been nearly impossible to film without the beautifully shot racing sequences.
The show agreed to the American Humane Association's demand to stop staging races after a horse reared up on its way back to its stable, following a routine exam Tuesday, and hit its head. It had to be put down.
That death followed the euthanization of two other horses that were injured during the filming of racing sequences. The show's rate of euthanasia was much higher than in actual racing.
The California Horseracing Board, which regulates racing in the state and monitored the show, reported that between July 2010 and June 2011, 265 racehorses died in the state. Of those, 100 were euthanized for race injuries and 86 for training injuries. Seventy-nine died from causes like disease, having nothing to do with exercise. That was in more than 50,000 starts – horseracing's term for each time a horse runs in a race.
"Luck" had 50 horses, according to a report posted by Santa Anita, the race track where the show was filmed. And it lost three of them. (HBO declined to comment on the number of horses on the show.)
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has contended that the first two horses that died were unfit to race, one because it was arthritic and one because it was drugged. (HBO says the horse was only drugged while being treated, to calm it down.)
But the quick cancellation of "Luck" raises questions about whether it was unfit to ride. Not just because of its failure to protect its horses, but because its subject matter made it such a longshot.
And so HBO drew the white curtain.