Top Gear: why the BBC is right to motor ahead with popular, profitable shows

Gearing up for relaunch. PA

The BBC is revving up for the return of a reformed Top Gear, one of its most popular and profitable programmes, with new cast of presenters. The revamped show will be broadcast more than a year after Jeremy Clarkson left following his verbal and physical assault on a producer. A fresh start? Well, so far things have not seemingly gone well for the BBC.

Clarkson and his co-presenters James May and Richard Hammond have signed a three-year deal worth £160m with rival service Amazon Prime, providing greater competition for one of the BBC’s flagship programmes, and the real prospect of the BBC losing viewers and commercial revenue to the online insurgent. The trio’s brand of laddish banter will presumably continue, as a tried and tested product with surprising international appeal.

And the production of the new Top Gear has reportedly not been smooth. Lisa Park, the executive producer, departed after reports of disagreements with new presenter Chris Evans, hence his new unique title as “creative lead”. Then there was the appointment of actor Matt LeBlanc as a presenter – a decision reached apparently because of LeBlanc’s international profile, particularly in the US. LeBlanc doing a doughnuts round the Centotaph shoot, left the patriotic Evans visibly fuming.

Most of these stories have been pushed by the anti-BBC press, which seems to be willing the new Top Gear to fail spectacularly. While it is the personalities who dominate the headlines, these stories are much more broadly political and are fundamentally about the future of public service media in the UK.

In July 2015 John Whittingdale, secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, published a Green Paper on BBC Charter Renewal a few days after having agreed with the BBC that it would no longer receive money for licence fees for the over-75s, effectively reducing BBC revenue by around 20% per annum.

John Whittingdale. PA

He has since been accused of planning to “meddle” with the BBC’s peak-time scheduling. The Green Paper asks whether the BBC is too big and produces too many popular programmes that could be made and shown equally well by commercial producers and broadcasters.

The clear implication is that if the answer to this question is “yes” then the BBC should be smaller and have a lower licence fee. In other words, the BBC in the future would be asked to do less (fewer popular, commercially viable programmes) with considerably less funding, to the benefit of commercial competitors. Opponents of such a change have argued that popular BBC programmes, such as Dr Who, Strictly Come Dancing and the Great British Bake Off, are distinctive from those produced by commercial television and encourage commercial broadcasters to up their game through providing competition. They also help to build a BBC audience for less popular programming such as current affairs, and assist in financing public service television by making profits for the commercial subsidiary of the BBC.

Driving success?

The Clarkson-led Top Gear was not only one of the most-watched BBC2 programmes (with an audience of around 6m in the UK) but also one of the BBC’s most profitable. The programme and its spin-offs were seen by an audience of 350m in 212 countries. It generated revenue of around £50m per annum for BBC Worldwide (more than Dr Who or Strictly), which could be spent on new content.

The regular attacks on the new Top Gear by some of the national press should be understood, in part, as coming from newspapers with quite different political beliefs from what they perceive as a socially liberal cosmopolitan BBC, and also as media institutions with a vested financial interest in reducing the size and popularity of the BBC. Ideally, as far as most of the right-wing commercial media are concerned in the UK, the BBC should resemble public service broadcasting in the USA.

While such an extreme change is unlikely to occur in the UK in the short term, it is highly likely that the prominence of the BBC in the UK’s media landscape will decline over the next decade or two in the context of funding cuts and powerful new competitors such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. It may become harder and harder for the BBC to justify its licence fee, especially to younger generations.

One of the many problems associated with this is that research shows that countries with strong public service broadcasters competing with strong commercial broadcasters have the most news and current affairs output, and the best informed citizens, thereby making a fundamental contribution to the quality of democratic culture. So while the new Top Gear might not be everyone’s cup of tea, we should hope that Chris Evans and Matt le Blanc go on to enjoy many series of wheelspins together. Otherwise we may all end up in reverse.

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