Yesterday, at long last, we found out who will be behind the wheel of the BBC forthcoming new Top Gear reboot, which launches on the 8th May. Six other famous and not so famous names will be joining Chris Evans in what the BBC hopes will be a seamless transition to a new presenting team, following the unpleasantness last year.
Under the ancien régime, the show was incredibly well produced, and a genuine hit for the public broadcaster. And crucially, thanks to international sales it was a cash cow that the corporation could keep squeezing for more money to spend on all of the worthy and unprofitable stuff the Beeb does.
Unfortunately though, I can see trouble on the road ahead. For reasons that are almost out of the BBC’s control, I can’t help but get the impression that taking on the new Top Gear will be something of a poisoned chalice for all involved. Here’s why.
Escaping the Shadow
So first of all, there’s the simple fact that reboots are hard to pull off successfully. Generally there are two ways of going about them: You can either try to to show the audience how the new show will be different, or you can aim to reassure that things will be exactly the same.
In the case of Top Gear, given that the Clarkson era didn’t end because of poor ratings, and the show was still highly acclaimed, the intention is surely to very much do the latter. Much of the messaging ahead of the launch has also pointed towards reassurance. Early on producers said that there wouldn’t be a “gender quota” (because real men, who like Top Gear, think girls are icky, presumably), and looking at yesterday’s cast announcement, it is clear that they have looked very specifically for “car people” (as opposed to “presenters”).
The challenge with this aim for familiarity though is that it immediately invites close comparisons to what came before. In America, The Daily Show has just gone through a similar process as Trevor Noah took over from long-running host Jon Stewart. While the new iteration of The Daily Show, objectively, isn’t bad, ratings are down and for die-hard viewers like myself it is disappointing because it simply isn’t the Jon Stewart we know and love.
So the challenge for Top Gear will be whether it can outrun the shadow of Clarkson, May and Hammond.
Extra Expectations on the New Top Gear
The good news for the producers then is that there is some evidence that this is possible. Let’s not forget of course that the Top Gear we think of when we hear the words “Top Gear” is itself a reboot of an earlier, much more straight-faced BBC Two motoring magazine show which was presented by Angela Rippon and Noel Edmonds. The only thing it really has in common with the later version is Jeremy Clarkson and the theme music.
The reason the comparison doesn’t quite stand up though is that when it was rebooted in 2001, led by Clarkson and his producer Andy Wilman, not only was it in the era before social media and instant reactions, but also back then the show was hardly the internationally renowned jewel in the crown that it later became. So attention and expectations were much lower.
Chris Evans also has form taking over shows. In 2009 he replaced the late Terry Wogan in the presenter’s chair on the Radio 2 breakfast show. Things initially looked quite bad for Radio 2, as after a brief ‘honeymoon’ period, Evans shed one million listeners in 2010. By 2014 though, he’d turned things around and was hitting record highs. Could things work out similarly for Top Gear?
Perhaps, but the challenge for Top Gear is that it is going to be under intense amounts of scrutiny. Radio ratings are only released a few times a year, meaning that any new radio show has time to “bed in” and stand the chance of becoming well loved, whereas TV ratings are released overnight, enabling commissioning editors and commentators to come to snap judgements.
Radio and TV also serves a slightly different function: A breakfast radio show is background noise - something people listen to while driving to work or eating breakfast. Watching a TV show is a more active choice where viewers more explicitly opt-in... or opt-out.
What this means is that if ratings do fall or wobble, the producers, the BBC and the public will know it immediately. So even before the presenters are on properly first name terms, a narrative of success or failure will have formed in our collective mind and on social media.
The Armageddon Dilemma
As mentioned above, the presenters for the new show are very definitely “car people” rather than TV presenters. And while great for credibility, also highlights what I like to call the Armageddon Dilemma, named for the 1998 film: Is it easier to train miners to be astronauts, or astronauts to be miners? (Against all logic, NASA in the film chose the former.)
The rest of the team are a mixed bag, skill wise. Evans is obviously the trained TV presenter so he’s fine. Rory Reid and Chris Harris are perhaps the next best trained, having previously produced videos on YouTube.
But what about Sabine Schmitz, Eddie Jordan and Matt LeBlanc? All three definitely have some media skills - but whether they can turn “limited punditry” and “acting career” into the skills needed for the Top Gear format remains to be seen. Don’t get me wrong - none of them are amateurs, but again, they will be highly scrutinised by viewers around the world from the word Go.
The broader problem is that one of the major selling points of Top Gear is the Top Quality Bantz™. The new team will need to work quickly to build a rapport with each other, otherwise it could be pretty awkward to watch. In any case, the illusion of camaraderie will be necessary if they want to compete with some rather familiar faces...
The Amazon Comparison
The old Top Gear might be dead, but the ghosts of Christmas Past are very much alive. Surely, if there is one thing worse than having to follow in the footsteps of a much loved juggernaut, it is the old guard being able to judge how you’re doing, and comment publicly on it.
The new Amazon show featuring Clarkson, May and Hammond won’t be arriving until the Autumn, giving the new Top Gear reboot a little bit of a head-start. But it is inevitable that in the course of giving an interview, the old presenters will be asked what they think of the new show. The new guys will surely be hoping that they say something nice, or at least diplomatic. I mean, hey, it isn’t like Jeremy Clarkson has a reputation for saying things that are controversial, right? And surely he wouldn’t have a clear motivation for having a dig at his former employer which sacked him?
Given Clarkson, Hammond and May’s celebrity, their personal reactions too could play a large role in framing the public’s impression of the new Top Gear too.
And when the new show, which is rumoured to be called Gearknobs, does finally arrive, viewers and pundits alike will be able to directly compare old with new. Worse still for Top Gear, the new show has a rumoured budget of £4.5m per episode - which thanks to Amazon’s deep pockets will dwarf whatever the BBC throws at its show. The Beeb might still have a Star In A Reasonably Priced Car, but chances are that Amazon will be driving them around in a Rolls Royce.
It isn’t even a fair fight: While we’ll know how many people tuned into Top Gear within a couple of days of it going out, Amazon does not have its viewing figures independently audited and released. So we’ll only get some numbers on how many people are watching if Amazon chooses to tell us - and it will only do that if the numbers are good.
The Inevitable Press Backlash for the New Top Gear
Perhaps the biggest problem the new show will face though is the front page of the Daily Mail, two days after the second episode goes out.
Episode 1 will no doubt get big ratings, as the public will be curious to see what the new show is like. For episode 2, ratings will inevitably fall. And then when the ratings are in, we’ll see a number of stories about how the show is a ratings disaster, and how the new “politically correct” Top Gear has caused viewers to switch off in droves, and so on.
This will then be followed by columnists sticking the knife in, queuing up to criticise whatever the show does, because it will earn clicks and (slightly conspiratorially) serve the wider agenda of the proprietor. Most of the major newspapers are not big fans of the BBC. This isn’t simply a left/right red/blue issue - it is a purely competitive stance. And the BBC is a very big beast competing with ever struggling newspapers. So if you were in their position, wouldn’t you kick the BBC given the opportunity?
The dynamic with the Amazon show arriving soon after will turn the two shows into a great spectacle that will turn into a horserace, and will be subject to much attention and debate. Amazon’s PR department will be savvy to this too: In the interregnum between the premieres of Top Gear and the new Clarkson vehicle (as my friend Willard has speculated) we’ll see endless press releases boasting about how many more subscribers Amazon Prime has taken onboard. And don’t be surprised if the first trailer for the new show drops just as the credits roll on 8th May.
On That Bombshell
So it seems to me we have almost a perfect recipe for disaster. Retaining the support of viewers, managing the press and getting into a direct head to head fight are all massive challenges that the BBC, and the new Top Gear team are going to have face.
None of the fallout will be the BBC’s fault - but there are already forces working against the new show being a success.
But I write this as a BBC supporter, who wants the show to be successful, as it means the BBC can continue to thrive. So on this bombshell... I really hope that I’m wrong.