I’m about as interested in the war over internet streaming vs television as I am about Floyd Mayweather bitching how he’s better than I am because he has more money then me – I just want to watch good content. I don’t care where it comes from. I don’t have Netflix, Crave, anything like that. I watch TV and watch shows that I bought off the iTunes Store that I can’t get on my tv. I could watch my iTunes shows without using data or wifi. It was a great life to have.
Little did I know that 2017 would find me firmly on a side of the streaming/television war. It just took two years for me to get there. Well, technically speaking, nearly twenty years.
In 2002, author, journalist and tv presenter (Brit slang for host for the uninitiated), Jeremy Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman revived a BBC car show from the late 70’s called Top Gear. It was a show that didn’t have much — let’s face it, the show was boring. It was noting but reviews of the technical aspects of cars and that’s only interesting to hardcore car nerds. But under Clarkson’s writing and Wilman’s producing the show became an enormously entertaining look at cars. Reviews of a Ford Fiesta that asked if a Fiesta can be a landing craft for the Royal Marines. Can you buy a super car for under two thousand pounds? But it quickly became obvious to the Top Gear’s audience that the true secret to the amazing an viewership of 350 million people an episode wasn’t the writing of the show, or the events in the show (although it certainly was a factor). It was the hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May.
Over the fourteen years that these three presented Top Gear saw an immediate natural chemistry that guided the brilliant writing of the show. Three personalities that couldn’t be more different but all with a love of cars. 14 years. 350 million viewers an episode. Viewed in every country on the planet. That’s a hell of an achievement that very few in the world of entertainment can boast about. But as much as Jeremy Clarkson achieved with that show, he caused just as much trouble. Time and time again Clarkson’s opinions got the show into trouble as he freely spoke his mind. The show endured because Clarkson’s opinion became the voice of the audience up until early 2015 when he was suspended for striking a BBC producer. And when the decision came to not renew Jeremy Clarkson’s contract May and Hammond had a choice – continue on their contracts presenting Top Gear with a new host or quit. They chose to go with Clarkson. As a slap in the face, the man behind the incredible events on Top Gear, Andy Wilman, went with May and Hammond. Whether they will admit it or not – they won’t – the BBC started inadvertently started something that will have lasting ramifications on the BBC for years to come.
So here’s the BBC looking at retooling one of the world’s most popular shows. And replacing the three presenters that made the show what it was. How hard could it be? Extraordinarily hard as the BBC would find out. Much to the annoyance of the BBC, the focus was never on Top Gear anymore. Despite the news that gear head and amateur race driver… and actor, Matt LeBlanc was pipped to host the show, the focus of everyone was on Clarkson, May and Hammond. But what could they do when they contractually couldn’t work for another television broadcaster for one year? Just adding to the building annoyances of the BBC. The answer to that question came some months after Clarkson’s Top Gear was officially dead – Amazon Prime. Clarkson, Hammond, May, and Wilman all sign on to create and present a new show for three years. All good things to those who wait, the new Top Gear would premiere months before the trio’s new show – The Grand Tour.
Refusing to admit the secret of Top Gear was Clarkson, Hammond and May, the new Top Gear premiered early 2016 to much fan fare. Myself and the world, all curious to what the new show would be. And what the world found was in place of fantastical and amazing situations like driving hatchbacks through Chernobyl replaced with road trips through English highways… in fall. And in replace of the natural comedy born of real friendship between three men is six people that clearly were just there to work. Racing journalist, Eddie Jordan, automotive journalists, Rory Reid and Chris Harris, race car driver, Sabine Schmidt. And leading them, Matt LeBlanc and BBC radio presenter, Chris Evans. And right away you can tell – everyone hated Chris Evans. And that summed up the new show right there. This cast of characters, as talented as they are, were journalists and actors reporting on cars. And the weird space between Evans and the rest of the presenters only grew with every episode. The show was about as exciting to watch as Dan Rather commentating a UFC fight – none of it worked quite right. As the ratings steadily feel, the BBC was forced to admit that maybe Chris Evans, a man that collects Ferrari’s (but doesn’t drive them), isn’t the man to lead Top Gear. By the end of the new season of Top Gear, Chris had announce he wouldn’t be coming back to present the next season.
And so the waiting game was back on, trailers for The Grand Tour were coming fast and furious. The new premise of the show was simple, out with the old and in the with new. The Grand Tour is a traveling show, the studio was now a massive tent that would film in everywhere from Nashville to Amman, Jordan. The trailers were loaded with the kind of humour and situations you expect from Clarkson, Hammond, and May. And then, in December, The Grand Tour premiered on Prime worldwide. The reviews were in, and were positive. Every week, we found a new episode that never quite took itself seriously – almost satirizing Top Gear in someways but very much it’s own show. A show that would see a review of a new Audi while it was being used by the guys to rescue the Queen of England from hijacked plane in a special forces training ground in Amman, Jordan. Attempting to create artificial reefs with old cars. What was the most interesting about The Grand Tour was Clarkson, Hammond, and May. For the first time in 14 years, you truly felt like you were seeing them for who they were. Because they didn’t have BBC regulatory to adhere to anymore. The Grand Tour was felt exactly like Top Gear, but bigger. If there was any organization in the world that could go head to head with the BBC in terms of money – one of the world’s richest broadcasters – it was Amazon. I like to think that Prime recognized its need to stay ahead in an extremely competitive market and literally just told the trio: “Do what you want and we will pay for it.” And I imagine the conversation they actually had wasn’t that much different.
Much like Top Gear’s ‘star in a reasonably priced ca’r – now ‘star in a rally car’, The Grand Tour featured celebrities every episode. Everyone from Jeremy Renner to Charlize Theron. But to the credit of The Grand Tour team, it was very much different to what Top Gear does. The Grand Tour team realized from the start that their car show would find similarities to Top Gear. Why not, their both car shows. But as much as they are similar, every part of this show is truly unique. And Wilman, knowing he wasn’t on telly anymore created a user experience that was every bit as enjoyable as the show with a slideshow fact bar that plays over every episode with a humour to it that can only be described as British. He had Amazon run a contest to have fans flown to the inaugural filming in Johannesburg, South Africa. The show never once forgets that the audience is the most important aspect of any show.
The Grand Tour lived up the grand in it’s name as it quickly started pulling in numbers equal to the top shows on Prime’s competitors in Netflix and Hulu. Work on the next season is already underway. But the true test to see who wins this war will be the second season of both The Grand Tour and the new Top Gear – retooled again with the departure of Chris Evans. The problem with that is, the BBC is either too blind to see, or too stubborn to admit, that it’s over for Top Gear. The remaining presenters of Top Gear are never going to gel enough to bring in 350 million viewers a week. No amount of retooling will do that for them. And Wilman worked some damn miracles to be frank. Miracles that took episodes of Top Gear to unparalleled levels of entertainment – like the top of active South American volcanos in second hand 4×4’s bought unseen over the internet. And with The Grand Tour, what Clarkson, Hammond, May and Wilman created is a platform that not only gives you an incredibly fun show to watch it created a platform for an interactive user experience that can be built on and really bring users into the show.
It’s funny how Jeremy Clarkson punching a producer is what it took for me to admit that internet streaming is a natural evolution of television. But here I am. And I have a question repeating in my head now. How long can conventional television last with original content on streaming hubs gaining so much steam and delivering a far better product? And you can answer this anyway you want but the answer is at some point television will transition to completely streamed content and traditional channels will be nonexistent. One can only guess what the internet will look like at that point. But if it still allows for shows like The Grand Tour to be seen, it will be an extraordinary entertaining time.