The rise and rise in popularity of the BBC’s Top Gear, is both undeniable and unprecedented. So much so that people I grew up with, who have no interest in cars, or anything even slightly automotive related, are now avid viewers of the programme.
The Top Gear name is synonymous with motoring journalism, but is it for the right reasons? The watered down road tests now play second fiddle to three larger than life personas, heavily scripted jokes and general tom foolery: a distant cry from the early days of Quentin Wilson offering his opinion on whether an 8v Golf GTi was a better buy than a 16v.
But in attracting this larger audience, has the programme lost its way, the off the cuff witty humour that made it trendy and more importantly, alienated those viewers who made it popular in the first instance? Or has it had the opposite affect to this? In bringing in newer and younger viewers, has Top Gear opened up the world of motoring to thousands of children and the general public?
Throughout this paper, I will be drawing on a focus group conducted with four avid viewers of Top Gear, as well as Channel 5’s 5th Gear, in order to get an overall and rounded view from fans of both programmes.
Rise & Fall & Rise of Top Gear
When Top gear began back in 1977 its main prerogative was reviewing the new cars of the day, entwined with topical issues such as road safety. The series also commented on motorsport events, namely rallying; as commentated on by contributor Tony Mason, an ex rallying co-driver.
The format of the show rarely changed in its 30 year stint on the beeb maintaining a steady following of fans. However, towards the end of the 80’s, Top Gear took a leap towards its current format with the arrival of two new presenters; professional race driver Tiff Needell and Performance Car Magazine’s Jeremy Clarkson. (Savage, M. 2006)
With the ever controversial Clarkson now establishing himself on television, the programme experienced a boost in its viewing figures, from just a few hundred thousand to over six million. (Savage, M. 2006). The staid format of the programme was replaced with a more outspoken and influential tone, proving that auto journalism is not the sole reserve of ‘car-bores’ and mechanics.
However, the future of the programme was plunged into uncertainty when Clarkson left the show in 1999 to pursue other interests. (BBC, 1999). Viewing figures of the show took a hefty blow, which ultimately led to the show being cancelled in 2001, with the final show bringing in 3.25 million viewers. (BARB, 2010). As a result, presenters Vikki Butler-Henderson, Tiff Needell, Quentin Wilson and the entire production team moved the complete programme to Channel 5 to start up 5th Gear. (BBC, 2001).
The launch of this show, was somewhat overshadowed by a BBC announcement that Clarkson would be back with Top Gear in its new and widely recognised format around the same time. (BBC 2001) Clarkson now held the commercial rights to the show and wanted to take the show in a new direction. (BBC, 2010). As it launched, it was seemingly overlooked. The viewing figures for season one, episode one were 3.54 million, (BARB, 2010) somewhat meek in comparison to current figures and only slightly up on the format it had supposedly replaced. Despite this, the BBC persisted and the programme continued unaltered. As the seasons continued, the programmes became more visually stunning, with more and more elegant editing and fantastic visuals. (Sharma, 2010) The locations became more exotic as did the cars tested and the ‘epic races’. But viewing figures remained around the same total. (BARB, 2010).
It was only after Richard Hammond's crash, (BBC, 2006), that viewing figures rose. The accident occurred in September 2006 whilst filming for series 9, the following season beginning in 2007 and saw the viewing figures rise 100%. The first episode of Season 8 drew in a figure of 4.75million viewers, whereas series 9 episode 1 saw 8.13 viewers tune in, (BARB, 2010),Whether the publicity brought in by the accident caused the figures to rise is unknown, however, the statistics do not lie.
Since finding this hugely increased popularity, the show has been under a steady stream of criticism. Overkill on scripted comedy, forced apologies over alleged accidents; Air balloon stunt, (Mail Online, 2009), Tesla stunt, (Plunkett, J. 2008) and a staged break down in the Lancia Stratos replica piece, (Stratos Forum, 2009) the predictability and consistency of their jokes has made viewers call out on the tedious viewing which is being undermined even more by blatant lies for the sake of a joke. (Sharma, 2010)
Clarkson’s “Star in a reasonably priced car” has also descended into “cringe worthy TV” (Thompson, 2010). When the segment began, it was a summary of the guests motoring history and interests, what car they drove and then the lap time. Now, it is “an exercise in arse kissing and pointless conversation for the sake of filling a 15 minute segment”. (Thompson, 2010) The same has also been said over the regular regurgitated challenges that the team undertake. (Sharma, 2010)
“New cars are always £100k+” (Williamson, 2010), which whilst serving a purpose of pure escapism, hold no true consumer advice that the original format built its reputation on. Even early episodes of the “New Top Gear” showed elements of the original format, but now, any form of affordable motoring is either ridiculed (Series 13 Episode03 – 5/07/09) or subjected to tests that provoke a comical response (Ascari A10 VS Daihatsu Materia episode Series 10 Episode 09 – 9/12/07).
Despite these negative factors and obvious drawbacks, the programme has seen a rapid growth in viewing figures in recent years, highlighted by the ever growing crowd size in the Top Gear studio. Combine this to the lengthy waiting list for tickets and it would seem the attraction of TG still exists. “The whole point of watching Top Gear is to see desirable cars, I don’t want to watch a show showing middle of the road cars.” (Williamson, 2010)
Egos and personalities
There are very few review based programmes in the world that have the same impact that Top Gear does, there are even less motoring based programmes. The corner stone of the Top Gear format is Jeremy Clarkson. His dry wit and straight talking attitude has given him a hardcore fan base. However, it is this same attitude that has forced the BBC to repeatedly apologise and has driven many fans of the programme away.
Regardless, the draw of Clarkson is undeniable, viewing figures are succinct to his presence, remove Jeremy, remove the fans. Once famed for fronting several other motoring programmes “Motor world”, “Extreme Machines” etc, Clarkson is somewhat sedate in modern times in hosting other shows beyond Top Gear.
Looking at the other presenters, James May, is often the comedy focal point of the group. Often branded as “Captain Slow”, despite being a hardened motoring journalist, famously fired for his subliminal message in Autocar Car of the Year, (Bosselman, R. 2008) he has always had his past glazed over and is always presented as a sedate and bumbling character. (Sharma, 2010).Beyond Top Gear, May’s extra programming is more in keeping with the ethos of Top Gear, both old and new, in blending automotive and transportation issues with other “boy’s toys”. “The documentaries he presents are always welcomed and entertaining.” (Robinson, 2010).
Richard Hammond has also helped the ratings, bringing his own fan base to the programme. Often billed as the “Cute & attractive” one (Williamson 2010) he can be attributed to bringing the female viewer to the show. In 2006, over 40% of the shows viewers were now female, (Quinn, C. 2006) and is held in high regard by many of these. A point highlighted by the females of the focus group. However, Hammond has been somewhat of a “sell out” in the eyes of male viewers. (Sharma, 2010) Above and beyond the confides of Top Gear, Hammond is the face of multiple children’s television shows, mediocre Saturday night ‘prime time’ slots, he even had his own chat show for a period. In addition to this, he has also appeared in numerous irrelevant advertisements for Morrisons.
The three personalities could not be any different. They also manage to come together to form a genuine friendship that shows through on TV, which manages to be masculine but not imposing (Williamson, 2010) and appeals to a broad audience. The appearances of the three personalities outside of Top Gear have had a mixed effect on the audience. A proportion of the focus group felt that the appearances of familiar faces on television helped boost the profile of Top Gear, presenting them as genuine people. Where as others felt that the trio were simply cashing in on the popularity of the show and it was having a detrimental effect on Top Gear as it had given the three an ego that they do not warrant. (Thompson, 2010).
Despite the dwindling figures of ‘petrol-heads’ who still tune in to the programme, the overall viewing figures rate the programme high up in the BBC’s Sunday night roster. BARB shows that series 14 (15/11/09 – 03/01/10) regularly topped the chart for the weeks it was shown. It would appear then, that the development of the programme from consumer product based testing into a light hearted and jovial look at life has not detrimentally damaged the programmes reputation, with more people tuning in than turning off. “It has gone down hill, but its still the best thing on TV on a Sunday night.” (Thompson, 2010).
Comparisons to 5th Gear
“This is the only place you’ll see the best cars tested by the best drivers. For these guys, it’s all about the cars.” Is the slogan to the new advert promoting the latest season of 5th Gear (2010). A sly dig, perhaps, at the meandering Top Gear that is experiencing the same decline in figures that spawned 5th Gear back in 2002. Throughout the online motoring community, there has always been a direct comparison between the prominences of the two shows. With both being the flagship show of their respective days, there is a lot of importance and pressure on the shows to bring in viewing figures to justify their budgets.
5th Gear has adopted a lot of the elements of Top Gear that makes it visually stunning, dramatic camera work and editing as well as exotic cars and locations, but also strikes a balance with more everyday stories (Red Victor piece – S12 Ep 05) and practical issues. (Jon Bentley’s regular crash test features). 5th Gear has also adopted the idea of having celebrities on their show (a la star in a reasonably priced car) as well as the elements of humour. (The introduction of Tom Ford cemented this notion.)
Unlike Top gear, the cars are genuinely put through their paces, often in group test scenarios. The famous “shoot out” tests conducted by the show highlight the true performance of the cars tested. The show also displays other elements that Top Gear is missing. The professional drivers on display offer a pedigree that “The Stig” cannot match. However, over the past few seasons the similarities to TG have gotten stronger; Questionable humour, obscure challenges, semi studio setting at “Ace Café” and more and more celebrity guests. However, Jonny Smith, host of 5th Gear is adamant that “there’s room for 2 car TV shows. Fifth Gear will simply be a reviews based visual car magazine.” (Final Gear. 2010)
This is not to say that this formula is successful. Rumours have long been rife over the cancellation of 5th gear since October 2009. There were multiple announcements via multiple channels announcing so. Despite this, the programme is set to return in June 2010, with a range of celebrity guests. However, the show has been slashed from its original hour long slot, to just 30minutes.
Three egos feed the want to test cars on a single basis. There are no group or multiple testing on TG. 5th gear has the same levels of banter between Tiff & Jason. Information and feedback more useful and true, rather than jokes for the sake of it. Shit anecdotes and similes, just for the sake of cracking a smile in viewers is what TG specialise in.
Focus group Findings
But which is better? In a focus group made up of young ‘petrol headed’ people. In the group I assembled were people aged similar to myself, in a bracket of 20-25, all with an interest in cars. The general feeling towards 5th gear was;
- The professional drivers are a great attribute
- The “Shoot Out” scenarios are a better side by side comparison of two cars, the “power board” on Top Gear is subjective to weather.
- The consumer tests are a welcome change to just exotica, exotica, exotica.
- When exclusive cars were tested, they were given a thorough review rather than just “power tests.”
- The later episodes are a shadow of Top gear, the inclusion of Tom Ford and Jonny Smith add nothing to the show.
- The inclusion of Tim Lovejoy would rather be omitted.
- It needs to stick to its original format rather than implementing regurgitated styles from Top gear.
Whilst the attitudes toward Top Gear were;
- Fantastically produced
- Exclusive cars are always reviewed
- The comedy was a key contributor to the success of the show
- The Stig is a worthy inclusion, breaks the tedium of the show
- The scripted nature of the show over powers the rest of the content.
- The challenges are tedious
- It has become more of an entertainment show than a true journalistic show
- The anecdotal comedy is now tedious.
Focus group Conclusion
It would appear that the current format of Top Gear is somewhat of a quandary. For every “petrol head” viewer turning off, three others will tune in. Whether the BBC sees its Sunday night flagship show as an entertainment programme or a motoring show will depend on which path the show wishes to take. 5th Gear, whilst seemingly being “all about the cars”, is treading dangerously to the same route paved by Top Gear; involving celebrities, questionable comedy and exotic cars whilst seemingly alienating the user tests and safety issues that were regularly showcased, will result in the same outcome to Top Gear. Both shows seemingly have their attributes and negatives in spades. But with more and more “petrol heads” turning over from two to five, the questionable future of 5th Gear may be secured; the inclusion of three professional drivers displaying the same level of banter that Top Gear does, whilst giving useful data and feedback on a car, is something that is held in favour by fans of the show.
Yet despite this, Channel Five is still held in disdain by some. Perhaps if the format moved back to the BBC, the outcome would suit everyone. It is much more likely to be a failure, the new hoard of fans that hold Top Gear in favour don’t just seek 0-60 times, top speeds, BHP ratings. They seek much more than that. Light entertainment has always been popular, Top Gear just happens to have some cars thrown into the mixture as well.
Andy Wilman, executive producer of Top Gear has recently gone on record saying that “the show has disappeared up its own arse; we lost sight of what we were doing”. (Wilman, A. 2010). It would seem that the untouchable are not untouchable, dipping viewing figures and an unashamed admission from the exec producer suggest would a return to form.
Internet rumours where rife before the last series that the show had been cancelled once again due to dropping viewer ratings. But time and time again, Clarkson et al, return with another series that never strays from its new formulaic structure. 5th Gear, with its more adult and mature approach to car review is not exempt from the dreaded cancellation either. With both teetering on the brink of the end and sporting erratic viewing figures, is there a happy medium anywhere?
TG as an entity is ideal; it combines the generally mundane world of automotive culture with a likeable, softer approach. Tie this in with exotic machinery and stunning locations and you get a programme that does appeal to the masses. However, as Andy Wilman has already highlighted, the show is on the verge of imploding. It needs to capture the unscripted, ‘banter’ laden atmosphere that made the show so popular in the first place. Whether this happens or not will depend on just how fresh the fish really is in Morrisons.
- 5th Gear (2010) Advertisement for Series 17 [advertisement on Channel 5]. Viewed on May 26th 2010.
- Andy Wilman (2010) ‘Series 14: where we’re at’ BBC Top Gear [online] [20th May 2010]
- BARB (2010) ‘Weekly Top 30 Programmes w/e 23 May 2010.’ BARB [online] [21st May 2010]
- BBC (1999) ‘Clarkson slips out of Top Gear.’ BBC news [online] [20th May 2010]
- BBC (2001) ‘Top Gear team switch lanes’ BBC [online] [18th May 2010]
- BBC (2006) ‘TV presenter suffers brain injury’ BBC [online] [17th May 2010]
- BBC (2010) ‘The team: Jeremy Clarkson’ BBC Top Gear [online] [20th May 2010]
- Catherine Quinn (2006) ‘Top Gear: The Race For Ratings’ The Independent [online] [20th May 2010]
- Daily Mail (2009) ‘Top Gear stunt in which airship flew over airport exposed as a carefully orchestrated fake’ Mail Online [online] [17th May 2010]
- Final Gear (2010) ‘Breaking: Fifth Gear Still Alive And Kicking?’ final gear [online] [15th May 2010]
- John Plunkett (2008) ‘Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson under fire over Tesla electric car test drive’ Guardian [online] [17th May 2010]
- Mark Savage (2006) ‘Top Gear’s chequered past.’ BBC news [online] [18th May 2010]
- Richard Bosselman (2008) ‘Captain Slow takes the fast lane’ The Age [online] [18th May 2010]
- Stratos Forum (2009) ‘Hawk wanted for Top Gear’ Stratos Super Site [online] [15th May 2010]
- Focus Group;
- Faye Williamson (24) Primary School Teacher
- Arun Sharma (23) BA Automotive Design Student
- Emma Robinson (22) BA Physiotherapy Student
- Paul Thompson (24) Office Worker