The Blog

On The Cusp of Something BIG

Top Gear is watched in practically every country on earth. There is no other programme that crosses divides quite like it. Mr Bean comes to mind but not much else.

There has been a lot of uninformed speculation about what the Top Gear men will do next. Allow me to add my own uninformed speculation here.

Commentators have called it the end of an era, that the format is bigger than the stars, that they are doomed to eke out the rest of their lives as a shadow of their former, popular selves. I suspect that their future lies on a different path. I do not see them as being a spent force that will die a slow death on a commercial channel.

I think that they will do a "Howerd Stern".

Howerd Stern is an American radio talk show host. The content of his programmes is to British radio talk shows as Debbie Does Dallas is to Blue Peter. Stern is an arch controversialist that has been delighting his young American audience for decades with features such as "Butt Bongo", wherein a lady's naked posterior is used as a drum, "Bestiality Dial a Date" and "Who's the Jew".

It is an adult show that goes out at breakfast time on the radio, on stations from coast to coast. Or at least it used to. Now he is heard only on satellite, which you might think would be a big come down. It isn't.

In American radio, in a any major city, there are people doing talk shows earning millions of dollars a year. Many earn ten million, some make twenty or thirty million. Howerd Stern earns a hundred million dollars a year. I'll write it out in numbers. That is $100,000,000 every twelve months. For a radio show. On satellite.

The reason he pulls in more money than almost anyone in the media except Oprah is that he became hugely successful on a free to air service first and then went to a pay channel.

Stern's show started to get really noticed in New York in the early 1980's when it went to number one in the key demographics of young males and was then picked up by other stations in other towns who were performing less well than their business models required.

Typically, Stern would take over a moribund show, arrive in a wave of titillating publicity, hold a funeral service for the morning show he was most in competition with and then charge to the number one spot almost as soon as he went to air.

He repeated this feat in so many major markets that he became young male America's way to start the day.

The FCC, America's version of the speech police, started to get tough on content after Janet Jackson's "Nipple-gate" during the half time show of the Super Bowl in 2004. A brief flash of female nudity in the most watched television broadcast of the year allowed the censors to propose a shutting down of the sort of content that Stern thrived on (and that millions of people loved). Radio became a more restrictive place for a controversialist to work.

Coincidentally, that same year, satellite radio started in America. Its proposition was to provide hundreds of advert free music services that would appeal to those who were tired of the repetitive stations they had to listen to on the radio. Subscriber uptake was slow. They needed a star to drive the business. The biggest, baddest, loudest, most attention attracting start in American radio was Howerd Stern.

For turning his back on terrestrial broadcasting, he and his agent received $218 million of shares and a $100 million yearly budget. A few years later, another shares incentive was received worth $82 million.

That is more than half a billion dollars in the space of three years. On top of that he also earns about $95 million a year for television work which includes being a judge on America's Got Talent. It is nice to know that at least someone earns more than Simon Cowell.

To recap, Howerd Stern is controversial, got into trouble with the censors and authority, had his ability to do his act on terrestrial broadcasters seriously curtailed. Ring any bells?

Top Gear is watched in practically every country on earth. There is no other programme that crosses divides quite like it. Mr Bean comes to mind but not much else.

We are at the point of great change in the broadcasting world. Many pay TV channels are emerging, each desperate for unique content that will draw in subscribers. HBO has Game of Thrones, Netflix has House of Cards. BT is stamping all over Sky's dominance in the football market. Google and Amazon and every big swinging company on the internet want to prise you away from the free to air channels.

The biggest draw in world television, that is currently without a home, is the show with Jeremy, James and Richard. If they are not the richest people in the history of British television within two years they will need to have a frank discussion with their agent.

They could meet him over a steak dinner. He will want to wear a head guard.

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