The New Top Gear: Netflix’s Biggest mistake

When Top Gear came to an abrupt halt in March of 2015 there was much speculation about the future of the show and its presenters. A return to the BBC was eventually ruled out for the presenters, leaving the world to speculate on where they would move to. The top contenders to pick up the trio of presenters included rival British TV station Channel 5, big name US networks, and Netflix. While each of these groups may have been interested in being their new home it was Netflix who had the most to win and lose from this deal.

Channel 5, while probably interested in the trio (for their notoriety and ability to draw in viewers) just as much as any other station in the UK, already have a car show hosted by members of the pre-2002 Top Gear cast.  Thus there was really no reason to hire Jeremy, James, and Hammond when they already have a well-established cast running their own car show.

Speculation around interest from big name US networks never materialized. One possible reason for this could be attributed to the BBC already having a US (although a less successful) version of the show. Another likely reason could be the inability for the show (and its British hosts) to capture a larger American audience with their unfamiliar style and intellectual humour.

This left Netflix as the main serious contender to pick up the three former Top Gear presenters for a new show. For many reasons this match was almost perfect.

In 2012 Top Gear was awarded the Guinness World Record for the most watched factual TV program in the world with viewers in 212 regions around the globe. As far back as January 2015 Netflix was talking about how they planned to expand their operation around the world. Historically Netflix’s international operations have been hampered by restrictive licensing deals which make for inconsistent offerings between countries. To combat these inconsistencies Netflix has been championing creating their own “Original Content” which they can then make available around the world without restrictions. The timing of the demise of Top Gear could also not have been better for Netflix as going into 2016 Netflix will be spending $6 billion on original programming. What better way to mark their international expansion than with the upcoming release of a new show, available around the world, from the creators of worlds most watched factual show.

Unfortunately, this seemingly perfect deal never came to fruition. Amazon ended up picking up Jeremy, James, Hammond, as well as their producer Andy Wilman, for a new car show on Amazon Instant Video for £160m.

Netflix’s response to the widespread surprise at their seeming lack of effort to pick up the trio for a new show stated that the presenters were not worth the money that Amazon was paying. They claimed to have based this decision on audiences interest and viewership statistics from their back catalogue of Top Gear episodes.

Netflix though, failed to notice a fatal flaw in the basis for their decision. While Netflix operates in a dozen countries around the world, the majority of their viewers are still in Canada and the US. The problem is that in Canada and the US Netflix carries the version of Top Gear from BBC America. Due to differences in broadcasting in the UK vs in the USA or Canada there are numerous insurmountable differences betten this BBC America version, and the one on BBC2 in the UK.

The first noticeable difference is the length of the show. While the BBC in the UK has no advertisements, BBC America does. This means that while most episodes of Top Gear in the UK are around 60 minutes long (and often a couple minutes longer) the ones in the US are rarely 50 minutes. This means that before anything else is considered viewers are losing 10 minutes of content every episode. One key example of this is the exclusion of the memorial piece by Jeremy Clarkson on the life of F1 driver Ayrton Senna. This was one of the most moving pieces Top Gear has ever filmed and people watching in North America (and on Netflix) will never get to see it.

The second most noticeable difference is the music used in the show. Top Gear does some fantastic shoots in amazing places with well thought-out music choices. Unfortunately, due to licencing issues between countries, some music is substituted when the show comes across the pond. Among the thousands of music substitutions throughout the show (mainly the recognisable popular pieces of music) the most obvious example is in the Vietnam special when the trio is presented with their backup transportation option. The bike in question was painted in stars and stripes colours and trailed two american flags. This in itself was a strong statement, but when paired with the accompanying music was even more powerful. In the UK BBC2 broadcast the reveal of the bike was paired with the playing of “Born in the USA”. This song by Bruce Springsteen is about the Vietnam War and includes such insensitive lines as “Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man”. As a replacement the BBC America version used the Star Spangled Banner which, while relevant to the America-Vietnam connection, just didn’t convey the same level of political in-correctness that the original music choice did.

These two examples make the case that the UK and American versions of the show were so vastly different that they should hardly be considered the same show. This highlights the inaccuracy of Netflix’s viewer data as viewers like myself who subscribe to netflix and watch Top Gear choose to watch the show elsewhere because of the aforementioned differences. As such, the ratings Netflix is seeing on their site are vastly different that those might otherwise have been should they have been able to carry the true version of the show.

Netflix’s underestimation of the overall worldwide viewer-ship and popularity of Top Gear is based on inaccurate assumptions using flawed viewer-ship data. This oversight has meant that they have lost out on the opportunity to capitalize on a very rare and beneficial confluence of events. With their goal of expanding around the world there are few shows with such universal appeal which could have helped Netflix’s expansion as easily as Top Gear. This decision is a huge lose for Netflix and every viewer of Top Gear around the world.

Hayward Peirce Written by:

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