January 31, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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On virtually any network in America, the discovery that a hugely expensive new series–stocked with the highest-caliber talent, preceded by a multi-million dollar marketing campaign–had been watched in its debut by little more than a million people, and that fewer than half a million of those were younger than 50 years old, would be considered close to a disaster.
On HBO, LUCK was instantly renewed for a second season.

And this is how the pay-cable business is different from both network and basic cable.  Luck may never be watched by many people (in fact, it was watched by less than half as many 18-49 year olds than even SHAMELESS, airing at the same time over at Showtime).  But since HBO doesn’t sell advertising, it doesn’t really care about the number of eyeballs a series gets.  What it cares about is prestige and mystique.  As Ari Emanuel noted in a recent NY Times article, HBO is one of the iconic brands in all of television, and that’s because it stands for the kind of high quality that no self-respecting TV subscriber (around 29 million of them, currently) feels he or she can be without–whether they watch the shows or not.  The titles alone tell the tale:  The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Band of Brothers, Boardwalk Empire, The Pacific, and on and on  (HBO also stands for a great deal of sex and violence, which is another quiet selling point, but that’s another story.)  No one watched HBO’s recent adaptation of Mildred Pierce, but Kate Winslet swept awards season (and the show probably would have too if it weren’t for Downton Abbey).  No one watched In Treatment, which sometimes measured a 0.1 in 18-49s, and it ran for 3 years.  And if all the people who now claim they watched The Wire actually did, it would have been a blockbuster instead of a show lucky to stay on the air.
Luck, with its super-charged talent roster of David Milch, Michael Mann, Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and many other classy names (Michael Gambon!  Catherine Keener!), has a home at HBO for as long as it stays elite.
In the next few weeks, episodes of Luck will air opposite the Super Bowl, the Grammys and the Oscars… and starting in Week 3, its competition will include THE WALKING DEAD, the most popular scripted show on cable.  Who knows how low Luck‘s ratings will go.  Which is to say, by March, HBO might extend that renewal for 2 or 3 more years.  

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."