When brands pack a punch
By Kate Bulkley
For Broadcast March 26, 2015
Clarkson case highlights power of the top shows, says Kate Bulkley
Not since Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin took a swing at Ken Barlow in the Rovers Return almost 30 years ago has a TV punch caused such a big fuss.
Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson may or may not have landed a blow on producer Oisin Tymon, but the events of the night could have extraordinary financial repercussions for the BBC.
The Beeb’s suspension of Clarkson has prompted speculation about Top Gear’s future. The raw facts are that the show adds a staggering £50m each year to the corporation’s coffers via programme sales, DVDs, books, live shows and merchandise.
Six local versions stretch from China to Russia, and 350 million people watch the original in 214 countries. Top Gear has the same iconic status for the BBC as Strictly Come Dancing and Doctor Who.
Strictly has aired since Brucie retired and Time Lords can always regenerate, but the accepted wisdom is that if the Beeb fires Jezza, then the chances of a Top Gear show with a new presenter (or presenters) retaining anything like that kind of popularity is somewhere between slim and none.
Instead, the Top Gear trio will most likely be snapped up by a commercial broadcaster to make a replica show under a different name. In Jezza’s mind, it could be called The ‘Fuck You BBC’ Motoring Programme.
Big stars in big shows are what work best in this fragmented TV viewing world. Top Gear is the holy grail of programmes because it has watchable talent and a repeatable format. What rival channel wouldn’t want even half of what the Top Gear trio could deliver?
Since Tim Davie took over BBCW in April 2013, he has created international channel brands BBC First and BBC Earth to house drama and factual respectively. But is it the BBC labels or the power of the shows that sell the content?
A top programme can add lustre to its parent brand. Look at Netflix or HBO: House Of Cards and Game Of Thrones sell subscriptions, and their owners are very careful about how they sell the programmes outside of their own brands.
Sky’s deal with HBO in the UK is a case in point. Last year, Sky extended it, agreeing to pay £275m over five years for access to HBO’s catalogue, plus a multimillion- pound co-production deal that gives Sky exclusivity to any programmes they make together.
Do people seek out the Sky Atlantic brand or do they search for Game Of Thrones? I’d argue that a top programme’s own status does most, if not all, of the work. The BBC shouldn’t be complacent that its own brand is globally powerful enough without its biggest-name shows.
In September 2012, BBC Worldwide paid Clarkson £8.4m for his share in the production company that had been set up years earlier to make Top Gear. The Beeb wanted to protect its intellectual property rights and consolidate its revenues from the show.
One alleged punch later and its multimillion-pound commercial strategy could be broken into many pieces. And the winner in all this? Well, maybe Clarkson himself, whose sign-on fee for his next TV series could be one of the biggest… in the world.