The BBC’s flagship show Top Gear is ready to return to television screens with radio veteran Chris Evans and US actor Matt Le Blanc behind the wheel, but the brand has a battle on its hands… the new duo will have to engage their top gear to outshine the show’s banished hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May.
It may have retained the Top Gear brand and the show’s format (the Stig included) but the BBC has braced itself against upstart Amazon’s coup de tat in seizing the influential trio, Clarkson, Hammond and May, for its newly named ‘The Grand Tour’ show which will air on Prime Video in Autumn.
This situation raises the question: which show is the challenger brand? The one which retained the format and brand, or the one that seized the world-renowned and infamous talent?
The BBC finds itself in an unenviable position; a large cross section of the public is anticipating the failure of the original Top Gear while others are perhaps unfairly expecting it to immediately emulate the popularity Clarkson and co reached over many, many series.
However, the Beeb show starts in pole position with its access to mass audiences in the UK and throughout the world on both its own and traditional broadcast channels. Few brands can immediately build a following like the BBC as evidenced by the success of shows like Doctor Who, Luther and Sherlock. In contrast Amazon and the other OTT platforms have huge budgets to spend on a few iconic programmes to grow their platforms.
Indeed, what makes the race to the top between both shows so interesting is that nobody knows for sure what the outcome will be. Top Gear’s fame has for so long been inextricably linked to Jeremy Clarkson (until the fracas) that the BBC’s success will be predicated on whether the new team have enough star wattage to beat the most successful Top Gear team at their own game.
“Top Gear has been a massive brand across the globe and good casting of an internationally recognised new team should give it every chance to dominate. Its launch has certainly not lacked publicity,” said David Johnson, chief executive at Compact Media. “The strengths of the Amazon rival will focus on Clarkson, Hammond and May, the most successful Top Gear team ever. Both could well be iconic brands and viewers may want to watch both – there is always a home for good content. I predict a dead heat.”
Dave Roberts, deputy managing director and head of entertainment at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment , was more circumspect: “In the UK, there's no doubt that Evans is a well-loved broadcaster, but his most celebrated work has always been live or 'as-live' with Big Breakfast, TFI and his R2 breakfast show. Look outside of live-broadcasting and Evans’ track record is somewhat less proven; will he be able to replicate his sense of spontaneity and unpredictability in a largely scripted, pre-recorded format?”
Outside the UK, where the BBC's commercial arm has deployed Top Gear as one of its financial big hitters, Evans has little or no profile, hence the Matt LeBlanc hire, according to Roberts. A major decider will be how LeBlanc copes with the format, and he will have to build a chemistry with the team to emulate the matey formula of Clarkson’s clan.
Competition and media coverage between the shows in the UK will be fierce; the BBC’s iPlayer will be a strong rival for Amazon Prime due to its popularity and deep trove of diverse, compelling content. Internationally, Top Gear can also call on its status as mainstay programme with a deep archive that will continue to air on international channels and their local streaming platforms. The key for the new entrants like Amazon - and Netflix which will show Chris Evans' Top Gear internationally - is whether they can build sustainable and profitable subscription services around the world through creating their own iconic content, argued Johnson.
The shows are likely to differ significantly, with Top Gear probably giving petrol heads more of the content Clarkson and the team avoided and Amazon’s Grand Tour pushing the boundaries of the trio’s infamous 'ambitious but rubbish' philosophy. In this sense, each show could feasibly build a distinct audience as well as a shared one.
Unlike the new Top Gear, which will be judged (perhaps harshly) on its overnights when broadcast, the Grand Tour is one part of Amazon's strategy to entice new subscribers over time. What's key to this is Amazon's recent announcement that it is going to roll out a monthly subscription instead of its previous annual model.
“Even if it would work out more expensive in the long term, it's a far easier decision to sign up to £7.99 a month for Amazon Prime and hence Clarkson and co, than it is to cough up £80 for a year,” said Roberts. “Amazon Prime's model is of course very, very different from other services like Netflix. Using this kind of original content to drive Prime subscriptions and increase the frequency of purchases from their retail business is where the real gold lies for them.”
Amazon needs to invest heavily in content to reach the same level of awareness as its rivals. Currently, it’s sitting on a vast amount of shows but only a few of those can pull in audiences and although Transparent and The Man in the High Castle are wowing critics and audiences, neither have perhaps the same level of awareness as rival shows on linear TV or even House of Cards on Netflix. The new Clarkson show will probably be a safe bet in effectively securing attention even at that budget.
"The head to head between Netflix and Amazon and their long term impact on traditional channels and platforms is going to be the race to watch,” mused Johnson. Roberts continued on this theme, adding that it will be interesting to see what regions get Top Gear on Netflix and on the flip side, how long the exclusive window will be for the BBC's on-demand service.
There’s been talk of the BBC rolling out a US iPlayer - this will make discussions significantly more complex.
“There is more than enough room for both Netflix and Amazon as well as for both shows,” added Johnson. “The BBC and Amazon will be looking for different rewards for their investment, so for the shows this could be a long race, and for the platforms even longer. For the audience it is soon time to buckle up and enjoy."
Top Gear’s supremacy of the genre was long-lasting and entirely unrelenting but now it has a battle on its hand from some familiar foes. Who wants to watch a one-horse race anyway? Let the fracas commence.
The Grand Tour is touring the world, being shot internationally in front of a live audience. It's set to launch soon.