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Thriving, Driving, Clarifying

Thompson, Clarkson: life at the BBC

Thompson, Clarkson: life at the BBC and Davy’s Wine Bar. 2010

I can’t lie… my career at the BBC didn’t let me into the intimate Top Gear circle. I took this photo of Mark Thompson and Jeremy Clarkson, and I knew people who knew people, and we used the Top Gear room for meetings…  But I wasn’t on nodding terms with The Stig.

But.

Top Gear used to run on BBC World, the (largely) news channel which broadcasts globally.  As well as news, the channel carried travel and nature programmes. In the early 2000s, Top Gear was all about cars.  If you played a game of word association, ‘car’ might bring up ‘road safety’, ‘fuel efficiency’, ’30 miles an hour’ or, at a pinch, ‘plenty of poke on an uphill climb’.  They covered the range.

Their sudden insight was that instead of being about cars and how they go (zzzz), they should celebrate the pleasure of driving.  It’s not about motor, but the companionship and adventure to be found on the open road.  A ‘car programme’ might have balanced the presenters by providing a mixture of voices – say, a driver, a mechanic or salesman and a female expert (like Ground Force with Tommy, Titchmarsh and Dimmock). But a programme about driving could make do with three fellow travellers, or travelling fellows.

It was a clever idea, and audiences in the UK soared in response.

But Top Gear had never made much sense on a news channel, and watching Jeremy Clarkson bantering with chums in front of a studio audience felt out of place on BBC World in between live two-ways from war-zones and the latest business news.

Clearly many viewers liked the programme, but when we asked consumers about BBC World we found that they didn’t really know what the channel was.  They knew what CNN was but BBC World?  The name was too woolly.  You can be many things as a channel, but being unfocussed strikes me as a problem (and as an aside, what is BBC America doing scheduling Star Trek?).  BBC World was fundamentally a news channel, so why not say so.

If Top Gear had prospered by being true to its identity, we needed to do the same for BBC World.

So over the years, the channel’s slogan was changed from the weak ‘Demand a Broader View’, to ‘Putting News First’, and we changed the name from BBC World to BBC World News.  And Top Gear was taken off the channel along with other non-news elements.

Top Gear and BBC World News both saw their audiences grow when they embraced a cleaner, clearer identity.

If I have a regret it’s that we didn’t create a tonal shift for BBC World News in the way Top Gear had.  We needed to embrace the power of news with the same single-mindedness that Top Gear had celebrated the open road and that car drivers feel at a green light:

Vroom…. we bloody LOVE News because of the amazing stories.. put your foot dow..

Vroom…. it’s powerful stuff that connects … there’s a hairpin… diverse people

It… oh my good gawd… it.. changes every minute of every day but also (stomach in mouth) has patterns you start to notice

VROOM… it’s about humanity and love and fucking EVENTS and history unfolding and… oh my..  scientific breakthroughs

Strap yourself in because it may be a bumpy ride, and you know what’s coming, it’s more

vroom..

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I don’t think management were ready.