Is Top Gear running out of gas?

Or is the BBC's flagship motoring show simply beginning to turn in a new direction? We give Top Gear 2012 an MOT...

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Is Top Gear running out of gas?
Written By
Tim Glanfield

It’s one of the BBC’s biggest shows, sold to over 150 territories across the globe – it’s so popular it’s been remade in Australia, the US, China, Korea and Russia. 

However, as the Top Gear machine marches on across the world, here in the UK the past 12 months have seen the programme subjected to a string of negative headlines in the press, mainly relating to rows over comments made by its presenters.

But does this mean the show is beginning to fall out of favour in its homeland? Have people had enough of Clarkson, Hammond and May? Let's perform a quick MOT on Top Gear in 2012 to try to find out.  

Last night’s series 18 opener, featuring will.i.am, debuted on BBC2 and BBC HD with 5.1 million viewers, a 17.2 per cent share of all those watching TV at that time. That sounds good, I hear you say…what’s your point?

Well, it turns out that the same time last year, when series 16 began, the programme scored 1.2 million more viewers in the overnights, when 6.3 million tuned in to see John Bishop as a guest on the show. 

What’s more, this year’s Christmas special in India only attracted 5 million viewers, down 1.4 million on the Boxing Day Christmas special in 2010. 

And as if that wasn’t bad enough – Twitter analysis shows Top Gear only received 33,000 related tweets during the programme last night - compared to 160,000 about ITV2's much lower-rating reality format, The Only Way Is Essex.

Right, so it’s settled…Top Gear is finished, it’s stalled, and it’s in irreversible decline, right? Wait, not so fast.

Yes, on the face of it, the overnight ratings are down, but despite a rather turbulent year for the show, it’s not all doom and gloom. 

The Christmas special may not have broken records on the TV this yuletide, but it certainly packed a punch on BBC iPlayer, garnering a staggering 1.7 million requests in a five-day period – making it the most watched festive show on the BBC’s catch-up service. This is an accolade the programme also achieved in Christmas 2010, when over 1.2 million watched the Top Gear American road trip on iPlayer after the event.   

Indeed, Top Gear remains a favourite on BBC iPlayer all year round – pulling in the on-demand punters in huge numbers for delayed high-octane action – and often heading up its monthly charts. 

So maybe it’s not losing viewers - perhaps they’re just watching in a different way?

And when you look again at those overnights, are they really so bad? Last night’s Top Gear was up against Call the Midwife, one of the BBC’s highest rating new dramas in recent memory. BBC1 took a whopping 8.76 million with the 1950s nursing drama. So perhaps the petrolheads proved that, far from the chauvinists that they're often painted as, they are happy to share the remote control with the family after all. Also, Dancing on Ice skated away with 7 million plus on ITV1 – so suddenly 5.1 million doesn’t look so bad after all, eh?

Especially when you take into account it was the channel's most popular show of the night, up 150 per cent against BBC2’s average for the slot over the last three months and a whopping 800 per cent for BBC HD.

Likewise, the Christmas decline year on year could just as easily be put down to scheduling as the people turning against Clarkson, Hammond and May. The 2010 show was on Boxing Day, traditionally a day of big viewing figures – whereas in 2011, the India special was squirrelled away on 28 December.

So, before we start writing off the perennial track-side favourite – it looks like there may be a few more miles in the Top Gear tank yet.

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