Why 'Luck' Ran Out on HBO's Horse Racing Drama

HBO couldn't risk more horses dying. That's bad for buzz -- and buzz is its business.

The cancelation of Luck while in production on its second season came as something of a shock Wednesday, but certainly made sense in the big picture. Two horses were unfortunately killed during the filming of Season 1 and a third died recently while filming Season 2.

But to claim HBO was quick to pull the plug after the third horse died because the ratings for Luck were meager – and conversely would have kept a hit show like Game of Thrones on the air despite such deaths – is to ignore the HBO business model. It doesn’t rely on ratings. It relies on subscriptions. And what fuels people to want HBO is a desire to be in on the conversation when discussing some of the best shows on television.

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Buzz, hype  – and awards – are essential to the formula that fuels HBO’s business model and three dead horses is not the kind of buzz HBO is after.

It was clear even before HBO expanded its statement regarding the shut down of the series, the channel could get no reliable assurances that the horse deaths would end. If you can’t predict something like that – and three is already a lot, regardless of how they died – then you can’t manage the situation. From a business standpoint, HBO couldn't leave that to chance.

As the first and foremost reason for pulling the plug, that seems clear.

Secondarily, you can then factor in the cost of the show, which isn’t cheap given the star power in front of and behind the camera. It’s easier to call it a day when you’re pouring money into something that’s about to get a tarnished reputation and – you guessed it – lose all but the bad buzz.

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But pointing to the ratings is, in fact, pointless. They don’t matter. Most of the people quick to chide the lack of viewers for the show don’t like it anyway. If ratings really mattered, HBO wouldn’t have renewed it for a second season. In HBO’s world, Luck was setting up rather nicely. It had a ton of critical acclaim and the latter episodes of the season were bringing together a complicated storyline. Most important, viewers were getting more familiar and comfortable with a subculture – horse racing – that many knew nothing about when the series launched.

Given that cable series often see a spike in ratings during the second season – after those who didn’t watch find it on DVD or rentals – HBO had every reason to believe it could build on the Luck track record.

But that horse, as they say, has left the barn. All that’s left now is for HBO and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to fight it out on the public relations battlefront about whether horses were being unfairly treated.

HBO has said that it went beyond the requirements for humane treatment, going so far as to toss out this odd quote: “We maintained the highest safety standards throughout production, higher in fact than any protocols existing in horseracing anywhere with many fewer incidents than occur in racing or than befall horses normally in barns at night or pastures.”

For its part, PETA said HBO used “old, unfit and drugged horses” and has called for an investigation.

Or if you’ve been watching Luck at all, there’s an “inquiry” on this race. Hold all tickets. What happens more often than not in that situation? The horse under inquiry gets disqualified.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine