BBC Ditches 'Top Gear' Host Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson - H 2015
AP Images

Jeremy Clarkson - H 2015

Following an investigation into his alleged punching of a producer on the hit show, the U.K. broadcaster will not renew his contract.

Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson’s long and increasingly fraught relationship with the BBC has finally run its course.

After being suspended from the U.K. public broadcaster’s hit motoring series on March 10 for reportedly throwing a punch at a producer, the BBC has now announced its decision on the 54-year-old following an internal investigation. It said Wednesday it wouldn't renew his contract, which is expiring at the end of the month.

"It is with great regret that I have told Jeremy Clarkson today that the BBC will not be renewing his contract," BBC director general Tony Hall said in a statement. "It is not a decision I have taken lightly. I have done so only after a very careful consideration of the facts and after personally meeting both Jeremy and Oisin Tymon."

He added: "I know how popular the program is and I also know that this decision will divide opinion. The main facts are not disputed by those involved."

Hall continued: "The BBC must now look to renew Top Gear for 2016. This will be a big challenge and there is no point in pretending otherwise. I have asked [BBC Two controller] Kim Shillinglaw to look at how best we might take this forward over the coming months. I have also asked her to look at how we put out the last programs in the current [season]."

The summary of the investigation into the altercation that led the BBC to part ways with Clarkson said: "It was not disputed by Jeremy Clarkson or any witness that Oisin Tymon was the victim of an unprovoked physical and verbal attack. It is also clear … that Oisin Tymon is an important creative member of the Top Gear team who is well-valued and respected. He has suffered significant personal distress as a result of this incident, through no fault of his own.

"The physical attack lasted around 30 seconds and was halted by the intervention of a witness," the summary continued, while "the verbal abuse was directed at Oisin Tymon on more than one occasion — both during the attack and subsequently inside [a] hotel — and contained the strongest expletives and threats to sack him."

Clarkson’s career with Top Gear, which airs in the U.S. on BBC America and is one of the most popular and profitable franchises the BBC produces, began in 1988 when he joined as a host.

Having fronted the show since pitching its revamp in 2002, the former journalist is credited with having turned Top Gear into BBC’s cash cow. The pubcaster's most successful program is now exported to more than 200 countries and, along with live shows and other spinoffs, the brand is estimated to be worth some $74 million to commercial arm BBC Worldwide. The show even has a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most popular factual TV series with an estimated 350 million viewers.

The BBC bought out Clarkson’s 30 percent stake in the franchise for $12.5 million in 2012, alongside producer Andy WiIman’s 20 percent for $8.3 million, meaning it now owns all the show’s rights. But while it’s unlikely to want to lose its major moneymaker — and a show that regularly draws in more than 5 million viewers to its BBC2 channel — there’s been huge debate over whether it could actually continue without its leading man. ‎

Clarkson is a major ratings magnet. He's also a major headache for the broadcaster, with his outspoken views regularly making headlines and the subject of ongoing debates in the U.K. press.

The past few years have seen him and the show plagued by controversies, from his alleged use of the N-word, one of several incidents that have seen him accused of racism, to suggesting striking public sector workers should be “executed in front of their families” and, most recently, upsetting authorities in Argentina.

Last year, he was told he was on his "last warning" by BBC TV boss Danny Cohen, while Clarkson himself admitted that he would be fired should he make “one more offensive remark." He has frequently attempted to make light of these situations, even on Top Gear itself.

But despite such high-profile incidents and frequent calls for his dismissal — not least because of a BBC pay package estimated at around $1.5 million — Clarkson’s appeal to U.K. and international TV viewers is unquestioned.

A petition calling for his reinstatement that was set up shortly after his suspension was announced gathered more than 750,000 signatures in a little over two days.

Even U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron waded into the argument, describing Clarkson as “a friend” and “a huge talent,” adding that he hoped the situation would be sorted out because Top Gear is a “great program.”

However, the BBC has emphasized that no talent can be more important than the broadcaster's reputation. Speaking following the N-word controversy in 2014, Cohen said: “There’s no one show or person that’s bigger than the BBC."

Hall on Wednesday emphasized three points. First: "The BBC is a broad church. Our strength in many ways lies in that diversity. We need distinctive and different voices but they cannot come at any price. Common to all at the BBC have to be standards of decency and respect. I cannot condone what has happened on this occasion. A member of staff — who is a completely innocent party — took himself to Accident and Emergency after a physical altercation accompanied by sustained and prolonged verbal abuse of an extreme nature. For me a line has been crossed. There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank or public relations and commercial considerations."

Second, he emphasized that the producer involved "has behaved with huge integrity," adding: "As a senior producer at the BBC he will continue to have an important role within the organization in the future."

Third, Hall said: "Obviously, none of us wanted to find ourselves in this position. This decision should in no way detract from the extraordinary contribution that Jeremy Clarkson has made to the BBC. I have always personally been a great fan of his work and Top Gear. Jeremy is a huge talent. He may be leaving the BBC but I am sure he will continue to entertain, challenge and amuse audiences for many years to come."

Where exactly Clarkson will go is expected to get much attention in the coming days and weeks, with ITV being considered one key possibility.