U.K. fast-car show extends its reach and enriches BBC

LONDON — The coming year is revving up to be another smooth ride for “Top Gear,” the BBC show for petrol heads. Now in its 35th year, the show is challenging “Dancing With the Stars” for pole position in the international arena.

Last year, China and Korea rolled out their own local versions of “Top Gear,” a property thought to be worth about $66 million a year to BBC Worldwide, the net’s commercial arm. Revenue comes from sales of the finished show, merchandising spinoffs, live events, exhibitions and a growing number of localized versions.

The Asian adaptations of the show came in the wake of the second season of “Top Gear USA,” which airs on History; a Russian model that bowed in February 2009; and four seasons of “Top Gear Australia.”

“The way these local versions of ‘Top Gear’ are going, it won’t be long before they begin to emulate the success of exports of the finished U.K. program,” predicts Philip Fleming, head of communications for global brands at BBC Worldwide. “Who would have thought that a motoring program filmed on a wet afternoon in an English backwater would translate into a global hit?”

Who indeed? At the last count the U.K. show was broadcast in 198 territories.

In Blighty, 83% of the population is estimated to regularly tune in to “Top Gear,” hosted by the trio of Richard Hammond, James May and the pugnacious Jeremy Clarkson, whose political views are somewhere to the right of Rupert Murdoch’s.

On Nov. 30, Clarkson sparked fury when he said on a live BBC chat show that striking public-sector workers should be exterminated.

“I’d have them all shot,” he fumed. “I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they’ve got these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

The presenter subsequently said he was sorry if his comments had caused offense.

And his fans remail loyal. Even the French — whose relations with their neighbor across the channel are frostier than ever following the British government’s recent decision to veto an EU initiative designed to shore up the euro — have fallen for Clarkson and “Top Gear.” That show airs on Discovery in France, where the program is in its 16th season.

Globally, “Top Gear” has picked up 15 million Facebook fans and 350 million video views on YouTube. And to date there have been more than a million downloads of the “Top Gear Stunt School” game app.

In traditional media too, “Top Gear” continues to hog the fast lane.

There are 30 international editions of “Top Gear” magazine, generating a total circulation of more than a million copies a month.

“Top Gear”-licensed products also abound. Among the 150 items: T-shirts, mugs, skateboards, posters and board games, which sell wherever gas is pumped.

“Top Gear” launched in 1977. While some wonder whether the show — with its gung-ho attitude toward fast cars — can last in a world beset by dwindling gas supplies and global warming, the franchise’s managing director, Adam Waddell, is confident in its future. “I don’t know why ‘Top Gear’ can’t run and run,” he says. “I expect more local versions of the show will launch in the year ahead. That we’ve been able to get two non-English language versions, in China and Korea, on air in 2011 speaks volumes regarding its future prospects.”

In Britain, however, union viewers might demur.

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