An American Is Left to Salvage BBC’s Ailing ‘Top Gear’

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Matt LeBlanc during a filming of Top Gear in London in February 2016.

Photographer: Neil Mockford/Alex Huckle/GC Images via Getty Images
  • Public broadcaster’s biggest show crucial for overseas growth
  • Commercial arm seeks U.S. gains with AMC deal, streaming plan

In the U.S. television sitcom “Friends,” struggling actor Joey relies on a winning personality to compensate for his naivete, stumbling into everything from advertising gigs to dates. Now Matt LeBlanc, who played Joey, has lucked into a similar role in the U.K.

The American actor is poised to take the lead at “Top Gear,” the British Broadcasting Corp.’s most lucrative entertainment franchise, after star presenter Jeremy Clarkson left the car show and his replacement, radio host Chris Evans, flopped almost instantly.

A lot is riding on the success of LeBlanc. In addition to entertaining viewers at home, the show is one of the U.K.’s biggest cultural exports. It generates more than 50 million pounds ($65 million) a year in international sales of programming, toys and games for the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. That revenue is becoming more important to the world’s largest and oldest public broadcaster as the government cuts its funding.

U.K. viewership of the last “Top Gear” episode featuring Evans fell to 1.9 million, down from 5.3 million for Clarkson’s finale a year ago. Reviewers panned the DJ’s shouting delivery and said the new team lacked the chemistry of Clarkson and co-stars Richard Hammond and James May -- known for stunts like driving through Argentina with a license plate that appeared to hint at the 1982 Falklands War.

‘Warming Up’

“It was always going to be a difficult brief to reinvent a format that way,” said Tim Davie, BBC Worldwide’s chief executive officer. “We’re still just warming up our engines.”

Tim Davie
Tim Davie
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

To try to jump-start international growth, BBC Worldwide in late 2014 sold a 49.9 percent stake in U.S. channel BBC America to AMC Networks Inc., the home of drama series like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” The $200 million deal handed operational control of BBC America, including advertising sales, to AMC.

Last year, BBC Worldwide linked up with Sony Corp. on a television venture in India, and Davie said he was scouting around for similar opportunities in other markets.

“There’s absolutely no reason we couldn’t do other partnerships,” Davie said in an interview at BBC Worldwide’s headquarters in a former BBC broadcast studio in London. “This is an age where scale counts.”

BBC Worldwide returned 222.2 million pounds to the BBC in the year through March 31. It wants to lift the total contribution to 1.2 billion pounds over the next five years, 30 percent more than in the previous half decade.

Streaming Service

BBC Worldwide plans to introduce a Netflix-style online streaming service in the U.S. later this year, Davie said, without specifying a date. The subscription-based outlet will feature shows from the BBC archives, along with more recent programming. Worldwide is also working with Amazon.com Inc. on “The Collection,” a drama about a French fashion house in the aftermath of World War II.

The BBC also faces new competition as it prepares to shoot a new season of “Top Gear” with LeBlanc, who joined as Evans’s sidekick. Clarkson, who was dismissed last year after a fracas with a producer, has started work on a competing series called “The Grand Tour” that debuts on Amazon’s Prime streaming service in the fall.

In hiring LeBlanc, a rare example of a U.S. star headlining a quintessentially British show, the BBC is taking a page from Hollywood movie studios, which have begun casting non-U.S. actors to appeal to growing international markets.

Davie said the BBC’s priority remains serving U.K. television-owning households, which pay an annual license fee of 145.50 pounds that funds the broadcaster. LeBlanc is well-known in the U.K., Davie said, because he appeared as a guest on “Top Gear” and in “Episodes,” a British-American sitcom in which he played a fictionalized version of himself.

“We didn’t go out saying, ‘We must get an international cast member to build a global audience,’” he said. “We went out to get the best lineup.”

Overseas Sales

LeBlanc’s name recognition may be helping with international sales. The new “Top Gear” has been sold in more than 130 territories, Davie said. That’s up from 89 for last year’s series at the same stage, the BBC said, though short of the 236 countries and regions the last Clarkson-led episodes eventually reached.

In the U.S., the series’ season premiere with Evans and LeBlanc drew just 388,000 viewers, down from 530,000 for the previous version with Clarkson. The ratings are above averages for BBC America in the same time slot, BBC Worldwide said. 

“The presenting team, if it’s more international and broadens the international appeal, could have been part of the calculation,” said Tim Westcott, senior principal analyst at research firm IHS.

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