Cabler confident in Milch-Mann horseracing series

HBO has as much at stake in “Luck” as the compulsive gamblers who often sit trackside at Santa Anita.

Pay cabler is betting big on the multilayered horseracing skein that debuts Sunday, unleashing a healthy marketing and promo push to drum up viewership for the David Milch-created series lensed by Michael Mann. Satcasters DirecTV and Dish Network, as well as several cable operators, are offering a free preview of HBO this weekend in order to give non-subscribers a chance to sample the show, which may be a tough sell to viewers who are not familiar with the sport of kings.

As with many HBO series, the plot in “Luck” is a slow build, and HBO execs hope the extra exposure will allow viewers to become hooked on the characters and intrigued by the world of thoroughbred racing, which has been a passion of Milch’s for decades.

The second episode of the series will be offered on digital platform HBO Go beginning at 9 p.m. on Sunday, the same night the pilot is airing. The second episode will repeat on HBO Go until Feb. 5.

HBO already offered a sneak preview of the pilot in December following the second-season finale of “Boardwalk Empire.” It drew 1.1 million viewers.

HBO programming prexy Michael Lombardo says he’s confident that auds will be drawn to sample the show by the strength of Milch and Mann’s pedigrees, and stars Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, even if they’ve never set foot inside a racetrack or made a $2 wager.

“I think it’s a brilliant show. I wouldn’t change a thing about it,” Lombardo told Variety. “It’s how David and Michael work. They won’t rush the drama. I’ll trust our viewers who know that about our shows. There is a brilliance and beauty in that show. I was dazzled about where David and Michael took me as a viewer.”

Early sampling for “Luck” is vital to HBO because the Sunday competition becomes fierce starting next week.

On Feb. 5 NBC will be telecasting the Super Bowl, which a year ago drew a record-setting 111 million viewers (a number that could rise with a juicy New England Patriots-New York Giants match-up), and a week later CBS airs the Grammy Awards, the music industry’s biggest night. And, of course, there’s the Oscars, which ABC will offering on Feb. 26.

While that competish will probably put a dent in the turnout for “Luck” in its initial Sunday telecasts, HBO will bank on viewers catching up with it during the week through repeat telecasts, DVR viewing and On Demand showings.

“They’re on a quest to find the next buzzworthy series,” said New York-based TV analyst Shari Anne Brill. “They’ve done really well with dramas, and they may have found something interesting with ‘Luck.’ “

Milch, who penned the nine episodes along with his team of scribes, is a staple at HBO. He was the creative force behind the iconic and beloved Western series “Deadwood,” and surf-noir skein “John From Cincinnati,” which, conversely, had a poor reception from auds and was one of the few HBO drama skeins to be canceled after one season.

Beyond “Luck,” HBO has a handful of new series set to premiere in 2012. Most are on the comedy side, and in order make room for them on Sundays, Lombardo recently had to make the difficult decision to cancel “Bored to Death,” “Hung” and “How to Make It in America.” He called it a “sobering moment.”

“They were good shows, and a couple of them were in their best season. It feels bad,” Lombardo said. “When we have stopped shows in the past or not picked them up, they either didn’t work or they ran into their end logically, and there was a mutual agreement. This was a growing-up process for us.”

Up next is the Rickey Gervais-written laffer “Life’s Too Short”; “Veep,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the vice president; and “Girls,” about life in Manhattan as a twentysomething, starring and created by Lena Dunham.

Time will tell as to whether those series will connect with HBO viewers, but SNL Kagan analyst Deana Myers says the net is taking some distinctive and well-planned risks.

“Since they are a pay TV service, their goal is to try and do quality programming that distinguishes them from other networks,” she said.

While HBO has taken many swings at comedy since the heyday of “Sex and the City,” few have resonated with the cultural impact of dramas such as “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood” and “Boardwalk Empire.”

Lombardo said that’s because with laffers, more than with dramas, finding the right tone can be difficult.

“It is hard to figure out the perfect comedy,” he explained. “What do we hope for in comedy? That it’s emotional, has something to say and is fresh, with a distinct voice. You can’t just produce those. They come in with a creative vision. Either they come in the door or they don’t come in. Comedy is tough for us. You’ll see when people make their first foray into original programming in basic cable, they always go with drama.”

Never wanting to keeping the comedy cupboard bare, HBO has ordered a pilot of “The Viagra Diaries,” starring Goldie Hawn as a newly single older woman. “Bridesmaids” helmer Paul Feig was recently hired to direct.

On the drama side, pilots in play are “The Corrections,” based on the Jonathan Franzen bestselling novel, and Spike Lee’s “Da Brick,” about a young boxer in Newark, N.J.

If those three pilots become series, Lombardo, who knows too well that Sunday real estate comes at a high price, will face another dilemma about what shows remain on the air and which may have to be axed to make room for others.

“If all of them work, I’m going to have a quality problem again,” Lombardo said. “It’s a problem I lose sleep over more than the problem of finding a great show.”

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