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Jeremy Clarkson’s long-running position as the BBC’s most controversial on-air personality — but also one of the most popular — could finally be drawing to a close.
Following a “fracas with a producer,” the outspoken Top Gear host was suspended by the U.K. public broadcaster March 10. With the results of an internal investigation due to be announced next week, his future, along with that of the hit motoring show, whose latest episodes have also been suspended, is awaiting a verdict.
The fracas in question is widely acknowledged to be a punch thrown over the decidedly British issue of catering (reportedly the unavailability of steak) after a day’s shooting. But it follows a spate of Clarkson-related headaches for the publicly-funded BBC, including several accusations of racism (most notoriously his alleged use of the N-word, which resulted in a groveling apology). Last year, the Top Gear team was forced to flee Argentina after using license plates that referred to the country’s 1982 war with the U.K. over the Falkland Islands. BBC TV chief Danny Cohen had already stated that the host was on his “last warning.”
But while Two and A Half Men star Charlie Sheen was famously fired from the show in 2011 after a public feud with producer Chuck Lorre, network CBS and studio Warner Bros. Television, the BBC has various public interests to weigh.
“Public service broadcasting rests on a series of values, and Clarkson has been sailing close to the wind for some time,” says media analyst Claire Enders, who argues that if he did indeed commit a serious offense, then the BBC would have “no choice” but to let him go.
A 54-year-old former journalist regularly ribbed for his stonewashed-denim “dad-dress” and chastised for being outdated, Clarkson may have been released long ago if it weren’t for one thing: Top Gear.
Having joined the show in 1988, he revamped it in 2002 into a loud, brash, decidedly politically incorrect and gas-fueled cultural phenomenon, an engine-revving beast that is now the BBC’s most successful franchise by far. Sold in over 200 territories, with spin-offs such as a series of live events and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most widely watched factual program, the Top Gear “omnibrand” is worth an estimated $75 million to BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s commercial arm, according to BBC sources.
The question now is: should Clarkson leave, can the show survive without him? Or, with rival U.K. TV companies such as Sky and ITV having made no secret of their interest in Clarkson, should the BBC cash in?
“He connects with an audience that isn’t well served by the BBC and the fear is that if it removes all presenters that don’t fit a safe view of the world, it becomes very bland,” says Nick Thomas from analyst and consultancy firm Ovum. Others suggested that Clarkson was the living embodiment of the show and losing him would be like “The Sopranos without Tony.”
But although Clarkson’s popularity has been underlined by the 1 million names on an online petition calling for his reinstatement, the BBC might not be facing the disaster many are claiming, with a source saying there “wasn’t a sense of panic.”
Indeed, with Clarkson’s three-year contract, along with those of his “Clarkson-lite” co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May, up for renewal in April, there lies a “golden opportunity,” according to Enders, to bring in someone younger who can keep it going for another 20 years.
Clarkson himself has made several hints since the “fracas” that his time at the BBC may finally be up. In his regular column for tabloid The Sun, he described himself as a “dinosaur” and said that these “big, imposing creatures have no place in a world, which has moved on.” In more typically candid Clarkson-style, he most recently remarked that the BBC was full of “bastards” at a charity event that saw a lap around the Top Gear racing track auctioned off for $150,000. “The BBC have fucked themselves. It was a great show and they fucked it up,” he said, according to The Guardian, perhaps already having a good idea as to the outcome of the investigation.
But having spent over $20 million in 2012 to acquire the 50 percent stake in the franchise owned by Clarkson and his co-producer Andy Wilman, the BBC is likely to do its best not to kill off Top Gear.
One option would be to give Clarkson – who divorced his wife of 21 years in 2014 – a six-month break to sort himself out and consider his plans, suggests Thomas.
But should the BBC choose to get rid of its star and most unruly pupil, a wholesale onscreen change could be, in the long-term, a better move, “particularly with BBC’s current constraints on talent spending,” says Tim Westcott of analyst company IHS, pointing to Clarkson’s seven-figure pay package. “They can’t afford to have [programs] which are very reliant on individual talent,” he says.
“The BBC is going to take the best decision for the longevity of that franchise, and it may well be that the longevity of that franchise would be best guaranteed by a change,” adds Enders, who suggests the broadcaster’s commercial arm may have to accept a dip in revenue expectations for a couple of years as a new host is embedded.
“We have so many phenomena in the U.K. where plotlines change and people disappear,” Enders says. “There’s always a lot of controversy over the demise of each Doctor Who, but for some reason every single Doctor Who becomes the Doctor Who of all time.“
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek