FROM CAREERDRIVEN: AN INDEPENDENT EDUCATIONAL PUBLISHING MAGAZINE

Top Gear: The Race For Ratings

TV car shows have always enjoyed a huge following. Catherine Quinn reports on a motoring phenomenon

The car industry is a massive business worldwide. No wonder, then, that car shows are among our favourite weekend television programmes. Whether it's touring super-cars through the French Alps or assessing the practicality of the latest Vauxhall Vectra, it seems we all love to tune in.

Since Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond's recent accident, even more attention has focused on motor shows. Despite crashing a jet-propelled car at 300mph, Hammond is making a remarkable recovery. Jeremy Clarkson, his co-presenter, is as gung-ho as ever, and the BBC is already back filming the next series after a two-week suspension.

"I think we're bringing something which is about pure enjoyment into a field where most other stuff is about balance," Andy Wilman, the show's executive producer, explained before the crash. "It's kind of an oasis, like a Tracy Island for cars. And we freely admit it's quite a biased show, in that we're openly celebrating cars. The BBC likes balance, and if we were like other shows on the network we'd have a super-car one week and an environmentally friendly one the next. So we decided to be unfair and unashamedly make it a haven for motorists."

Many people in the industry would put this increasing fascination with cars down to higher disposable incomes. But perhaps it's just because we all like to dream about a high-income, total-indulgence lifestyle, and that's where full-fat, high-caffeine Top Gear delivers. That's not to say the show has remained static. It has been phenomenally popular ever since its inception in 1977. For a programme of its kind, which essentially deals with a niche interest, it claimed an enormous 19 per cent share of viewers up until the late Nineties, when ratings began to drop.

"If you look at figures dating back to 1997, it was always an incredibly popular programme for BBC2," says programme scheduler Kate Mordaunt. "Over years it declined slightly, as all programmes do if you don't change the format. With most TV, you have to redefine it and refresh it occasionally to keep people interested. Top Gear is a massive show for BBC2, so we had to make sure we were making the most of it."

Cue a period of almost a year when Top Gear vanished from our screens. While discussions were underway to reformulate the programme, the original team split, with one group approaching Five to run a similar motor show.

Since Top Gear's audience consists mostly of high-earning men in their twenties and thirties, Five were only too pleased to be offered the opportunity, and snapped up the team of ex-BBC staff. The idea was simply to move Top Gear to Five, but the network hit upon problems when BBC2 refused to sell them the name for the show.

Five launched their motoring show as Fifth Gear in an attempt to show their new audience that they were offering a show similar to the BBC2 classic. In the process, Five managed to nab many of Top Gear's presenters, including racing babe Vicky Butler-Henderson. Having raced since she was 12 years old, Vicky had already proved that she could easily match the blokes when it came to throwing cars around corners.

But BBC2 hadn't given up on Top Gear yet, and in 2002 they relaunched with their most famous asset: Jeremy Clarkson. "There is no question that Jeremy Clarkson has incredible sway within the automotive industry," says automotive PR consultant Nav Sidhu. "Ford could spend a billion pounds launching a new family model, and if it's on Top Gear and Jeremy slates it, that will have a massively debilitating effect on sales."

Whether or not the presenter's comments are taken seriously by consumers, there's no denying that his show has changed beyond recognition. Whereas Top Gear was once divided into practical sections and road-tests, the new show is held in a studio, with much more focus on entertainment. The 2002 relaunch was a full hour long, and had moved from Thursday night to Sunday evening.

"We got together and decided we wanted something which was a totally different format," says Wilman. "We thought the old format was old-fashioned. We wanted a studio to give it a sense of space, and make the most of the technology for filming, which wasn't available before."

In contrast, Five stuck with the old format, hoping to appeal to loyal Top Gear viewers. But, as with most shows, the pressure to constantly reinvent is all part of the job. Having managed to get about the only credible female driving presenter, they're now out for someone who can attract the less car-savvy viewer.

"We've just signed up Tim Lovejoy, which is all part of widening our appeal," says executive producer James Woodruff. "He's from a music and comedy background, as well as sport, and has a bit of a cult following. So we hope he'll appeal more to your man on the street who doesn't necessarily know what's under the bonnet of a car, but wants to be up on what's cool to drive."

So what about women? Both Top Gear and Fifth Gear now attract a good deal more female viewers than did previously. But Top Gear's Sunday evening slot seems to have won it a massive number of women viewers considering the subject matter. The show can currently claim a 32 per cent share of the 16- to 34-year-old male viewing figures. But it also manages to attract 40 per cent of female viewers - quite an achievement for a programme claming to be an "oasis for motorists".

Wilman puts this down to the family entertainment style of the show. "Because it's on Sunday evening, I think it's become a bit of a family thing. It does really well in contrast to shows like Heartbeat, which to me just makes it really obvious that the weekend is over. In contrast, we're about extending the weekend, if only for an hour, and not reminding people they have work in the morning."

So, with all these extra viewers, what effect do the shows have on the automotive industry? Can Jeremy Clarkson's comments really make or break a brand? "You definitely do see a spike in sales after a certain car is mentioned on Top Gear or Fifth Gear," says Simon MacConachie of Sherwoods Vauxhall.

"We always try to ask people where they've heard of a brand and often people say they've seen it on Top Gear. I think they do take it with a pinch of salt though. I've also had people come in and say that, even though they know Jeremy Clarkson hates a car, it doesn't bother them!"

I LIKE 'TOP GEAR'

I like Top Gear because it's irreverent and highly opinionated: there was a fantastic show where they made vans into boats on a budget. I'm not keen on Jeremy Clarkson, but there's always the chance that someone in the audience will have a ratchet handy! I like it because it's a proper entertainment show.

Richard Hill, marketing consultant

I LIKE 'FIFTH GEAR'

Top Gear is too much about smashing up cars for me. Fifth Gear is really informative, and it road-tests cars properly, giving plenty of practical detail. I wouldn't necessarily watch Fifth Gear because I was shopping for a car, but it's nice to have the facts in case I ever come into money! I like to known which cars have come out on the market and how they perform.

Emma French, accountant

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Developer - Norfolk - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Software Developer - Norf...

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?