Would Top Gear Succeed in the US?

(from left to right: Top Gear hosts Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hamm and James May)

By Alex Ricciuti

04.23.2008

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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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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10 Comments

  1. For all the reasons you cite and probably a few more, an American Top Gear cannot possibly work.

    For good example, just tune in to “Motorweak”, uh, I mean, “Motorweek” on PBS. Despite being on the most independent channel there is on US TV, they just cannot get themselves to legitimately and honest critique any car/truck/SUV on the market. Maybe they just need to grow some cojones –or, better, get some new blood– but I think it is endemic to US TV that “thou shalt not offend”.

    Fortunately, I can ignore NBC (easily done) and just watch the real thing on BBC America.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! This is what I’ve been trying to tell my friends! They keep saying that the show would work fine here and I keep saying it wouldn’t, but I couldn’t say it anywhere near as well.

  3. As a non US person (but one in a market that has also bought rights to Top Gear, Australia – our version goes to air in July) I suspect that a US adaptation of Top Gear could work…..it just wouldn’t be like the British version.

    So the question is…..is that the only thing that is of interest to US viewers?

    Yes…..the UK Top Gear does do a bit of car slagging….but is there any evidence that it actually impacts on the sales of said slagged cars?

    Surely the NBC marketing mob and the automakers can come to some arrangement? I mean what ‘arrangements’ are there for the auto magazines with their advertisers? They sure as heck don’t gush over every car they see…same goes for the internet sites.

    Admittedly they don’t say that x car is a piece of crap……but then they don’t on UK Top Gear either…..usually it’s ‘dull’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘hopeless’ followed by ‘if you want something in this class…then you’d be better off buying that’. And that is no different to what most web sites and car mags say…..

    Anyway…..the Oz version of Top Gear is on a channel that relys on advertising for income…..we’ll let you know how it goes!

  4. exactly right

  5. It will be an awful clumsy thing if it gets adapted for American network bosses.

  6. You’re spot on about Jeremy Clarkson; if there were an American Jeremy, and the producers encouraged shenanigans to the degree they seem to in the UK, it could work.

    It’s ashame that we can characterize the American audience in such a poor light. I’m inclined to agree – yet everyone to whom I’ve shown Top Gear loves it – my mom included. If they could only be marketed well, and keep the silly stuff/cynicism in with solid car bits, it could work.

    Also, it should be noted that it was the number one television show downloaded on BitTorrent in 2007 (who keeps track of that I’m not sure). I believe this is because there is demand for TopGear, but poor supply.

  7. Good point about Motorweek, Anon. I had forgotten about it. But it really isn’t anywhere like Top Gear.

    Now that you mention public broadcasting, an American car show I do like is NPR’s Car Talk (radio). Of course, that show is really a humorist/Americana advice show about cars. But I actually think that is a formula much better suited for the US market. A TV version of Car Talk I think stands much better chance.

    Alex Ricciuti

  8. Being in Canada, I can watch the real thing on BBC Canada via satellite. Please just say “NO!” to a dumbed-down American version made to please the advertisers. Part of what makes the show so great is its humor, which often comes when one of the hosts calls car “X” crap. Its a great show the way it is, and one that deserves better than NBC.

  9. I am begging the gods of television; don’t do it.

  10. Heck I’d just be happy if they’d release the Brit. version on iTunes or Hulu. I highly doubt an Americanized version of Top Gear would survive without some major pandering to the advertising support, which tends to be a major problem when you’re designing a show around a bunch of troublemakers. Ironically, the troublemakers are what bring viewers in to begin with. /shrug

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