The not sacking of Jeremy Clarkson by the BBC yesterday was met by a dependably British mix of consternation and crowing. Guido Fawkes' UK petition, the fastest-growing campaign ever run on Change.org (in itself an interesting and depressing fact) failed, despite garnering over a million “signatures” and repeatedly crashing the site, and Clarkson’s contract was not renewed.
The BBC is eternally an entirely political animal, artfully managing to let him go without actually firing him, while praising his contribution effusively and leaving the door ajar to employ him again in the future.
Clarkson is a divisive figure loved by millions for his, let’s say “robust” opinions on everything from "lazy" Mexicans to lorry-driving serial killers — on the odd occasion, sometimes even on cars — and loathed in equal measure for his perceived racism and generally being in possession of an opinion. And like most things in the British psyche, if we don’t much like something, our reasonable reaction appears to enthusiastically attempt to ban it. Even weirdy beardy bible Vice have described him as the UK rock star of our generation.
But the start and finish of the matter is that Clarkson appears to have assaulted a colleague in the workplace. And it doesn’t matter if you’re the Prime Minister or a McDonald’s chip fryer, if you thump a colleague, you’re out. Clarkson made his position untenable and was rightly shown the door. Not fired, though.
But where does this leave Top Gear — the world’s most widely watched factual TV programme, according to the Guinness World Record 2013 Edition book, and the BBC’s biggest and most lucrative brand? It’s sold into 212 territories across the world and, as guestimated by CBS’s 60 Minutes factual show, watched by 350 million people a week.
If Clarkson had been as ready with his fists just 18 months ago this would have been a far more complicated business, as he only recently sold his personal stake in the Top Gear brand in September 2012. For a sweet £8.4 million ($16 million Australian dollars). His company Bedder 6, part owned by Clarkson and childhood friend and Top Gear show runner Andy Wilman, historically owned 50 per cent of the Top Gear brand, after buying it for a song from the BBC in 2002. The Beeb historically owned the other 50 per cent. So that would have been awks, not renewing the contract of a man who owns 30 per cent of your company.
There’s been much extrapolation and wielding of calculators, but the general consensus suggests that Top Gear shovels anything up to £150 million ($300 million Australian dollars) into the BBC’s coffers. Alongside Doctor Who and Dancing With The Stars it makes the lion’s share of revenue for BBC Worldwide, the Beeb's international commercial arm. Top Gear Magazine sells 1.7 million a month, globally, the website is a huge success and the YouTube channel currently boasts 4,351,724 subscribers.
So any keyboard warriors conceitedly social media-ing that they’re happy their licence fee is no longer spent on making the show, you couldn’t be more wrong. Your licence fee pays for a lot of BBC things, but Top Gear hasn’t been one of them for over a decade.
To put that into perspective, £150 million is three BBC Fours. Or 18.75 6Musics. Or 21.4 Wolf Halls. If Top Gear flounders, that’s a huge budget hole the BBC has to fill. Difficult when the licence fee has been frozen since 2010 — a yearly cut in real world terms — and there has been governmental rumblings for years to trim the budget further. So the BBC has got itself into a right pickle. And the future almost certainly holds some difficult budgetary decisions.
The corporation has no choice but to try to make a go of the show, post-Clarkson, but that is going to be tricky. When doorstepped yesterday in a yellow banded, metallic pink trilby that he surely was wearing for a bet, co-presenter James May told the press, “We’re a package. It works for very complicated reasons that a lot of people don’t fully understand.” Adding: “As much as I think he’s a knob, I quite like working with Jeremy.”
Both May and Hammond, however do have existing, and presumably reasonably lucrative contracts at the BBC producing non-Top Gear content, with varying levels of success. Hammond’s famously animal-free Planet Earth Live a particular highlight. But that’s not to say they couldn’t do better elsewhere.
And the Clarkson haters are not going to like what happens next for the paunchy presenter as there are, of course, a number of broadcast suitors queuing up with blank cheques, vying for their signatures. Sky has been rumoured to have spent years courting them, but jostling into prime position are Netflix and Amazon, both broadcasters with established international reach and endless resources. Netflix has existing rights to Top Gear in America and other territories and it’s their policy to research what the most-torrented show is in a territory they plan to launch, then buy that thing and launch.
Key to this, will almost certainly be the decision of producer Andy Wilman. Top Gear’s puppet master, he’s quietly masterminded the reboot and continuing success of the show, is its steady hand on the tiller and if he and Clarkson move to Netflix, Hammond and May will almost certainly jump ship, too. Everyone involved will no doubt double or treble their salaries, and imagine the gnashing of teeth among the liberal elite when Clarkson is allowed to roam free, no longer reined in by the hand wringing PC police at the BBC?
Top Gear now can go one of three ways. It can do its level best to keep May and Hammond and parachute in a replacement, hoping that the special sauce of the show’s unique chemistry somehow survives intact. But already, like potential Premier League managerial targets, possible hosts are bowing out of the race — the BBC’s best bet, charismatic car nut Chris Evans, removed himself from the equation live on Radio 2 on Tuesday morning, saying: “This is not true. Not only is it's not true — it's absolute nonsense.” Plus, he’s fairly busy at the moment hosting Europe’s biggest radio show.
They can attempt to carry on as is with three new presenters continuing the current format. Or they can launch an entirely new car show, with new presenters and a different, fresh approach. Possibly not the “eco-feminist” show that Guardian columnist Zoe Williams suggested at the start of this process. That would have a viewership of one — Zoe Williams — and presumably only if Downton wasn’t on.
But the corporation does have an opportunity to start with a clean slate. Even James May conceded, in his silly hat, that: “Top Gear existed before us, and has been reformatted several times.” Can the BBC do an Have I Got News For You post Angus Deayton and construct a show that improved after its star departed? Although it does point to the lack of tenable options when the incumbent Mayor of London and Alan Partridge — a fictional television character — are two possible front runners. “It takes Gambon like it’s on rails! Smell my cheese! SMELL MY CHEESE YOU MOTHER!”
What is guaranteed is that, bar commissioning miracles, Top Gear won’t be the success it has been. And the BBC, and British television in general will be far poorer for that. Literally and figuratively. Whatever you think of its presenting team, Top Gear is revered the world over for its premium, high production value brand of car journalism and the BBC is incrementally more vanilla for Clarkson’s passing.
Unless, of course, the corporation waits six months for the fires to die down before signing Clarkson et al back on a new contract, which is absolutely its right and privilege as, of course, he wasn’t sacked, or put on the naughty step, nor was there a disciplinary process put into action. Witness Jonathan Ross, happily deputising for Steve Wright this week on Radio 2, following his “Andrew Sachs” scandal and "sacking" in October 2008.
The BBC has nothing if not a short memory, serendipitous amnesia and unending capacity for forgiveness — if you bring the ratings. That’s showbiz.