Clarkson & Co wade into Amazon’s jungle

Cutting edge streaming TV for everyone’s favourite motoring dinosaurs: but will it sell?

So, Amazon snapped up what may yet prove to be one of the most popular and most-watched TV shows on the planet. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May - formerly of the parish of Top Gear and the BBC - have made it official today; they'll be presenting a new show made exclusively for Amazon's Prime TV streaming service.

Prime TV, which comes at an annual cost of around €99 and which also includes such things as free delivery on Amazon purchases (depending on your territory) is Amazon's rival to the better-known Netflix and allows users to watch both movies and TV shows.

Those television programmes are both bought in from existing terrestrial and digital broadcasters and, increasingly, produced in-house by Amazon. It has already produced such critically acclaimed programmes as the transgender drama Transamerica and has commissioned Woody Allen to write and produce a new series (a project which he says is the hardest thing he’s ever worked on). It’s not the first time, either, that Amazon has resurrected a BBC series - it brought Victorian crime drama Ripper Street back from the, er, dead.

But by signing up Clarkson, Hammond and May for an as yet untitled show, Amazon is treading into new waters. Top Gear as was had an enormous global audience, frequently touching the 400-million mark. Amazon Prime, as with Netflix, does not publish viewing figures but is estimated to have as many as 50-million Prime subscribers worldwide, according to the Geekwire website. Even in the best possible case then, the trio’s audience will fall. Amazon is also estimated to be losing significant amounts of money on Prime and is reckoned to be about to increase the price, possibly by as much as €30. Is the signing of the former Top Gear trio a potential carrot to keep users interested?

At the official announcement today, James May said that is was ironic that “we have become part of the new age of smart TV.” Clarkson said that moving from the BBC to Amazon was like “climbing from a biplane into a spaceship.”

Certainly it’s a canny move, as because of Amazon’s US base it sidesteps a clause in the trio’s contracts that prevent them making a rival motoring show for another British broadcaster but that same clause may prevent, in the short term at least, Amazon clawing back some of the show’s no-doubt significant budget by selling it to terrestrial networks.

It also remains to be seen how much editorial leeway will be granted. Clarkson famously sailed close to the limits of the BBC’s patience on more than one occasion but the lack of commercial precedent at least protected the three presenters when it came to criticisms of the cars being reviewed. Amazon doesn’t sell cars but it is still a commercial organisation so it will be interesting to see if Clarkson’s wings are metaphorically clipped.

And where does this leave Top Gear itself? It’s currently being rebuilt by a team surrounding new lead presenter and producer Chris Evans but there has been little news since his appointment as to other presenters or the format of the show. Car-nut couch-potatoes will shortly have to make a choice - watch an untried but free to air Top Gear on the BBC, or stick with the tried and tested crew of Clarkson, Hammond and May but fork out a significant annual fee for the privilege.