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Despite Host Controversy, Amazon Takes A Chance On 'Top Gear'


When the BBC canned the host of one of its best rated programs "Top Gear," it was a big deal. Millions of fans tuned in each week to see longtime star Jeremy Clarkson and the flashy stunts of the long-running car show.


JEREMY CLARKSON: Tonight, question time comes to our reasonably priced car.

CORNISH: Clarkson had history of controversial comments on and off air. But he wasn't fired until he got into a physical fight with the producer. His co-host, Richard Hammond, and James May left soon after. Now Amazon is giving all three a second chance with a new car show the company will offer to customers on its premium streaming service. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans is here to talk more. Welcome back, Eric.


CORNISH: So "Top Gear" broadcast in 212 countries and territories, but for those of us who have not seen it, why do people like it?

DEGGANS: Well, it started in 1977, but they rebooted it in 2002. It's got these guys dropping all kinds of cars all over the world. For example, Clarkson drove a truck into a wall in 2008 just to show what it was like to get into a collision in a truck. And they're also become a global brand with DVD sales and magazine, website, video, downloads. They earned just under $80 million a year for the BBC. But they've also faced allegations of insensitivity and casual racism. Listen to the co-host Richard Hammond in this episode where he talks about a Mexican sports car.


RICHARD HAMMOND: Why would you want a Mexican car?

CLARKSON: Because car reflect national characteristics, don't they?

HAMMOND: Say German cars are sort of very built and efficient. Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick. Mexican cars just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent...


HAMMOND: ...Leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.


DEGGANS: And that wasn't unusual for the show. Clarkson was on thin ice with the BBC for an incident where he was alleged to have used the N-word during an outtake while filming a scene. And he also used a slur to refer to an Asian man on a bridge during a different segment. And so when his contract wasn't renewed and the other guys quit, the British press went wild trying to figure out where they might land next.

CORNISH: So there's all this drama on the show. How did these guys end up at Amazon?

DEGGANS: Well, they reportedly had a non-compete clause in their contract with the BBC, keeping them from going to another U.K. broadcaster. But since Amazon isn't a British broadcaster, they can make a show with Amazon next year that'll be available to their audience in Britain and worldwide. And since Amazon videos don't have ads, they don't have to worry about any advertisers getting skittish if there's another controversy.

CORNISH: OK, so "Top Gear" made a lot of money for the BBC. I get that. But given the controversy and, you know, what you've just described, why would Amazon sign up for this?

DEGGANS: Well, it's not unusual for a streaming service to pick up a show that's been dropped by a more conventional TV outlet. Netflix revived Fox's "Arrested Development," for example. And this seems to be another move where Amazon is competing with Netflix, especially with programming that has an international appeal. But what Amazon's doing here that's striking to me is that they're picking up projects with controversy.

Now - but besides the "Top Gear" guys - they got a deal to do a TV series with Woody Allen who's continually denied allegations that he sexually abused his adopted daughter. With the "Top Gear" trio, this team has always said that freedom is a big thing for them, and they're looking forward to the freedom that they get at Amazon. But if you give these guys freedom, can Amazon handle the controversy that might be created by the show that they wind up with?

CORNISH: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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