Top Gear: The Race For Ratings

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

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 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


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