With the will they-won’t they saga of Jeremy Clarkson’s contract renewal finally over, attention can now turn to what the future holds for both the opinionated presenter and Top Gear itself. Clarkson’s departure from the BBC’s hugely popular series will spark the biggest shake-up to the evergreen car show since its re-launch in 2002, following the defection of a number of hosts and crew to rival Channel 5’s Fifth Gear.
Clarkson, also a bestselling author and columnist, is unlikely to be short of offers. His brand of caustic humor retains a strong appeal to those that like that sort of thing, as evidenced by the million-strong petition to re-instate him after his initial suspension by the BBC for verbally and physically assaulting a Top Gear producer. He can also count on the endorsements of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently called Clarkson a “friend” and “huge talent” (although his spokesperson today said the PM believes “aggressive and abusive behavior” is not acceptable in the workplace), as well as Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted last night, “How stupid can BBC be in firing Jeremy Clarkson? Funny man with great expertise and huge following.”
Despite Murdoch’s support, his Sky is unlikely to be a post-BBC destination for Clarkson according to reports that emerged directly after BBC Director General Tony Hall announced his contract would not be renewed based on findings of an inquiry into the March 4 altercation. (Local police have said they are looking into the incident and will take action “where necessary.”) Netflix, another potential possibility, sought to distance itself from speculation he might migrate there, telling Deadline there was “nothing true to the rumor at this time.”
That leaves the likes of ITV as a possible landing point for Clarkson. Certainly, the channel would benefit from tapping into his target demographic of ABCs.
One thing that won’t be following Clarkson down the road is the Top Gear brand itself. In 2012, Clarkson along with producer Andy Wilman sold their 50% stake in Bedder 6 — the company that controlled the commercial rights to the revamped Top Gear format — to BBC Worldwide for $12.5M (£8.4M). BBCWW, which already owned the other 50% stake, now fully controls the Top Gear rights.
Clarkson was believed to have two contracts with BBC following that deal: a reputed £1M presenting deal, as well as a separate seven-figure deal related to the commercial exploitation from DVDs, live shows and merchandising.
As for the show’s future, Alice Enders of Enders Analysis tells Deadline, “Obviously, the talents of Jeremy Clarkson in creating and developing the show since 2002 are undeniable, and have made a very big contribution to the show’s enduring appeal in the UK and abroad and the considerable earnings from exploiting the brand.”
BBC Worldwide, which does not break out individual show figures, generated revenues of just over £1B in 2013-14 “and sales of the 21 Top Gear series packages and sub-packages and associated brand rights were likely to have contributed £50M,” she says.
But a loss of Clarkson is relative in economic terms because buyers are acquiring lumps of the series. The Top Gear package consists of all 21 cycles shot since 2002, so the half-completed 22nd cycle — which was cut short due to the recent fracas — “cannot be a monumental loss or discourage buyers,” Enders says.
BBCWW still will exploit the first 21 cycles plus the Top Gear show that aired from 1988-98. Further, format sales have been very lucrative, and have “probably not run their course,” says Enders. Notably, they work without Clarkson fronting. Enders points to the U.S. and French versions which are popular in their own right because “U.S. people want to see people driving American cars and French people want to see people driving French cars.”
The merchandising and the live shows will have also contributed to the bottom line, but “the bulk of revenues are going to come from the 21 series program sales.” BBCWW “has done all the administrative work and has the crucial pipeline,” Enders contends.
While Top Gear has not had another lead host since 1988, Enders wonders, “Why can’t the BBC re-invent the program with a new cast? How hard can it be to find three petrol-heads who are enamored with British cars? It’s an opportunity to refresh Top Gear.”
The future of Clarkson’s co-presenters Richard Hammond and James May, whose contracts are up for renewal at the end of the month, is similarly unclear. Both Hammond and May issued statements in the wake of Clarkson’s exit.
Hammond tweeted, “Gutted at such a sad end to an era. We’re all three of us idiots in our different ways but it’s been an incredible ride together.”
May, speaking to reporters outside his house, said when asked about whether he would stay with the show sans Clarkson, “I don’t want to talk about that too much but I think we’re very much the three of us as a package. It works for very complicated reasons that a lot of people don’t fully understand.”
Clarkson has yet to respond publicly, but this afternoon updated his Twitter profile to read, “I used to be a presenter on the BBC2 motoring show, Top Gear.”