Would Top Gear Succeed in the US?
By Alex Ricciuti
There have been some minor rumblings about bringing the BBC’s Top Gear to US television. As Jay Leno confirmed in a recent Sunday Times piece, NBC has bought the US rights to Top Gear and has asked him to host the American version of the show. Leno turned them down (wisely, I believe) and in his column he explains why he thinks a direct translation would not work. I agree. At least, not on network television.
There are many challenges to a US adaptation of the show, the main one being that the BBC’s independence from advertising allows it’s hosts, in particular, the lethally-tongued Jeremy Clarkson, to bread and fry any car they don’t like. In fact, that is the main appeal of the BBC show and part of a trait that is perhaps uniquely British – reveling in the language of clever insult and sardonic savaging.
For the show to survive on network/commercial television it would have to get most of its sponsorship from the automakers themselves, who are one of the largest buyers of prime-time TV advertising anyway. Leno says it himself in his column, that you couldn’t criticize the cars anywhere near how they do so on Top Gear because the car makers would pull their advertising and the network would pressure the hosts to tone it down and hence, the formula is no longer. Leno should know something about all the sensibilities required for working in TV; his Tonight Show has been the leading late-night talk show for about 15 years.
But even if NBC were to take the show to cable, like the Discovery Channel, owned by NBC Universal, you still have the fundamental problem of whether there is really any sizable audience for such a show. A cable channel would not be dependent on ad sales and would require a much smaller audience for the show to be a hit, but they would still need to have broad appeal. Why wouldn’t there be? Because, there is no equivalent car culture in the US as there is in the UK or Germany, which has about half a dozen popular car shows on TV too Some of those German shows air on private networks that run on advertising dollars. Those advertisers include automakers and, hence, the reviews are relatively sedate. (Besides Germans love their domestic makes and never really dog them. Fortunately, German cars happen to be pretty good anyway.)
Top Gear gets about 8 million viewers in the UK, a country of 65 million people. That would be comparable to something like 30 million viewers in the US, numbers only American Idol achieves on network TV. In Germany and the UK, these shows have broad appeal, primarily to a male audience, yes, but to the general male audience. The same kind of viewer who watches football matches and F1 races on Sunday. Just about every adult male is a potential viewer. There is no comparable generalized male demographic in the US. Even NASCAR is a particular kind of sport and not nearly as mainstream as football, basketball or baseball. In Europe, football (soccer) and F1 are the big sports. And other motor sports such as WRC are huge too.
Also, Jeremy Clarkson is a contradiction of a television personality. He can be an acerbic jerk or a witty cynic with a hidden humanity; often, all in one sentence. This, I believe, is too…just too ‘much’ for a mainstream American audience. In the US you are either ‘edgy’, in which case, you have no broad appeal, or a milquetoast host, like Leno himself, who’s mass appeal comes partly from the fact that he’s not the type to cut anyone down mercilessly, let alone the product of a major sponsor.
Also, a show where a host talks wittily about cars would come off as odd and peripheral to critics. Americans tend to see cars as utilitarian and only a very small percentage are buffs of any kind. In a success-obsessed culture, critics unfamiliar with what is to them an alien sub-culture would ask of a talented host like Clarkson (or Hamm or May), why is this guy’s talent being wasted on some low-brow car show? The Top Gear hosts are smart, witty gents. ‘Smart’ and ‘cars’ don’t mix so easily in a American culture subdivided and pigeonholed into niches.
And where are the fun and affordable cars to talk about? If you’re only covering high-end brands like BMW or Lexus or Mercedes, that can alienate your average viewer who has no reasonable chance of ever owning one. Conversely, many of the models that have any mythology attached to them, that bear any character, are actually pick-up trucks, since that is what the domestic automakers have been focused on for the last 15 years. But with oil at 117 dollars a barrel do you really want a host to be waxing poetically on all the fun she/he had driving across country in their old ’93 Chevy Z71, which gets about 13 miles per gallon?
It’s tempting for auto enthusiasts to want a show like Top Gear to come to the US and expect it to work. The US is just as much a car culture as the UK, right? Just as much, yes, but very different. Americans drive a lot because they have to; which may explain why as consumers they prefer large, comfortable vehicles to small, nimble performers. They also see premium brands more a measure of wealth than as vehicles with superior driving dynamics. Many observers have noted that cars in the US are a commodity and often taken as an appliance by consumers. Some automotive writers have made that point to explain the popularity of Toyota models which may be unexciting to journalists but are extremely reliable and therefore a favorite for consumers. The percentage of time commuters in the US are spending in their cars is ever rising, much of it stuck in unbearable traffic. And maybe those drivers don’t want to go home and watch a show that is just about driving.
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