Friday, 3 April 2015

PESTEL Trends – UK Mass Media – Top Gear "3.0" : Shifting Emphasis for the 1970s-like New Norm.

Here in the UK a news story which has featured highly in populist chatter over recent weeks has been the dismissal, and now seeming re-instatement, of Jeremy Clarkson from BBC2's prime time Sunday night TV show 'Top Gear'.

Over one million on-line signatures demanded that the BBC return the presenter, by those who had an affinity with the man's “unreconstructed” brashness and non-”PC” persona; even if it be 'turbo-charged' in part to provide distinction and mass popularity.

“Read All About It” -

The original dismissal itself obviously offered a talent-poaching opportunity for other terrestrial and internet based TV networks - particularly ITV, Sky and possibly BT and Netflix - as they themselves seek to strengthen their own business appeal.

This achieved either through improved advertising rates underpinned by the audience attraction of star names, or via a direct expansion of service subscriptions for pay-for-content broadcasts.

As to what future potential still remains for such external parties is presently unclear, given that Clarkson and his loyal band of merry men in the form of James May and Richard Hammond, are reported as having latterly agreed to undertake the (already organised) live performances of “Top Gear's World Tour”, itself starting in Norway.

The Commercial Bandwagon -

This latest 'brew-haha' has however – somewhat fortuitously - provided much high grade publicity.

Something akin to the break-up rumours or “last appearance” announcements of major rock bands, raising the likelihood of “sell-out” arena ticket sales. Given today's 24/7 media driven, “monetising” world, it is even conceivable that the whole thing was completely stage-managed, even if to the ignorance of its central character.

[NB If true, such real-world 'acting' by those seeking to puppeteer Clarkson, very unfortunately reflects the now repugnant state of everyday British social affairs. This in effect a merging of social reality and personal agendas, in which it seems many people all too willingly 'act' to obtain their typically petty goal. No doubt telling themselves it is the 21st century standard. If unaltered, this now engrained everyday en mass behaviour will eventually lead to substantial levels of social distrust].

As to whether the Clarkson led trio eventually jump ship to a better media deal elsewhere, we shall have to wait and see, Though any such instance would obviously be of prime interest to the shareholders of the aforementioned publicly listed media enterprises.

The popularity of 'Top Gear's' high-entertainment format was itself very different when re-introduced over a decade ago as compared to the show's previous, seemingly long defunct incarnations.

Top Gear “Version 1.0” -

As is now well recognised, yesteryear formats for the “programme” (not “show”) between 1977 and 2001 more broadly reflected Lord Reith's inaugural doctrine for the BBC: to “inform, educate and entertain”. Initially produced by Birmingham's Pebble Mill base and introduced by the news-reader Angela Rippon (for the Midlands TV region only) and assisted by Barrie Gill, it sought to demonstrate a light investigative manner and gain credentials as a serious motoring magazine; something welcomed by the increasingly affluent and mobile masses.

This same tone later echoed with inclusion of the IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists) and by the presenters Noel Edmonds, Sue Baker, Frank Page, Chris Goffey, William Woollard, Gill Pyrah and Julia Bradbury. Of the day issues, specific and competitive vehicle reports and such would be seriously discussed so as to provide the viewer with far greater general motoring, consumer and regulatory affairs, and auto-industry insight.

The now long-lived current format – “version 2.0” - has been very much biased toward the latter element of “entertainment” via the vehicular adventures and antics of the trio.

Top Gear “Release 2.0” -

Established soon after the turn of the milenium it would become the TV motoring equivelent of previously absorbed 'Brit-Pop'.

Created as 'authentic', with bare-bones studio with the central platform showcasing the “iconic” pieces of a Sofa inspired by the Ron Arad 'Rover P5 Chair', and the glass-topped F1 engine block table; the studio itself set within an ex-RAF airfield appeared as vast as the then newly constructed Greenwich Dome.

The first few episodes were lacklustre at best, until basic changes were undertaken, including the mixing of female and ethnic faces; a mix which was - and remains - a somewhat smug and self satisfied white men's zone. (To add to male viewer interest, the attractive females in the audience typically placed in the sight-lines of the cameras), Content improvements were made with the addition of audience interactive items, such as the social-stylised “cool wall”,  the “star in a reasonably priced car" board” and the Clarkson-Hammond-May “intra-competition" board.

Much increased viewing figures by 2004 allowed for an ever increasing budget, able to travel to and across Europe, and to more exotic regions: from the USA to Japan, from China to Vietnam, the Middle-East to Africa, Australia to Canada.

Whilst this format has proven immensely popular at home and worldwide over the last 13 years (as gauged by BBC Worldwide's 'Top Gear' income stream), the very zeitgeist of what led to the creation of today's show has, within the UK at least, has shifted dramatically since 2008/9.

This radical change in socio-economic backdrop begs the question as to whether the show itself would gain by once again evolving its character, content and presentation formats.

Where Life Meets Art -

The pertinent question is to what degree the programme effectively substitutes and possibly eventually replaces the actual emotional quotient of real-world car ownership in the West.
Has the car become so 'fetishised' in the post-modern philosophical sense, that it mimics the hyper-real role of food programmes beamed into people's homes. Whilst celebrity TV chefs prepare and eat as high-grade luscious food, the viewing public simultaneously actually consumes far less wholesome fare, yet is absorbed into the overall food fantasy by the merging of subject and object.

Likewise, an automotive TV diet of newly released super-cars deployed on cross-continental races, mid-level hatchbacks used for “a celebrity in a reasonably priced car” race competition, budget hatchbacks used in autos inspired football and rugby and threesome travels in an array of vehicle types could be seen as the necessary fantasy antidote to an all too conventional life lived. One with a script-laden blue-oval, banner brandishing griffin, or 'people's car' roundel, all too often stuck in traffic or piling-on motor-way miles, its residual depreciation almost seemingly inverse to the rising of its dashboard odometre.

BBC WorldWide's own media-export success of Top Gear suggests that the global public's “automotive consumption” still requires a media-fuelled fantasy element; either as: the dream-scape counter-balance, or more encouragingly, as temptation into new vehicle ownership within expanding and newly emerging regions.

More pertinently the programme plays an audio-visual consumption role (across age ranges) which provides a subtler, more diluted but similar stimulation to that of “Gen Y” and “Millenial” video-gamers psychologically glued to the 'Grand Theft Auto' series and similar. Between 35 and 17, many cannot afford to run a car, or at least a car of their own true choice.
In an improving but still economically surpressed era, coupled with a somewhat eco-propogandist and eco-regulatory regime that has promoted private vehicle substitution by bus, train and bicycle, which results in generally lower motoring expectations and demands by the young, it is a wonder that the automobile still has the regard it generally holds. However, add the stagnation of overall (Euro-Global) Formula One viewership together with the decline of feasible owner-driver servicing and repair on the domestic driveway (given the IT diagnostic complexities of modern vehicles), and it is easy to see how conversly – as an opposite reaction -'Top Gear' provides an alternative mental submersion.

Posing a Dilemma -

Given this context, the prime question is...

“to what degree today, and critically into the future, will the British and Western public actually retains its fascination for cars; as products in their own functional and emotional right”.

Has the West effectively over-dosed on the car and fallen out of love?

In an increasingly cyber-orientated and virtually-augmented environment, has auto-aspiration for model and badge declined? Are people presently weaning themselves off  the conventional automobile, by imagining alternatives ranging from the electric-bikes to driverless-cars, and slowly entering that world through purchases such as the boot / trunk housed fold-away pedal bicycle?

This question vitally important to not only auto-based TV producers, but also the future of automotive and private-vehicle investment in all its different guises. (One of which is the classic car fraternity). Another UK programme presented by Quentin Wilson and Jodie Kidd devoted to this economically evolving arena.

(Re) Generating Auto Industry Interest -

Whilst a useful ongoing debate, of more direct pertinence to the immediately previous essays, the remainder of this web-log chooses to compliment the content of a wholly jingoistic, yet very memorable, edition of Top Gear (Series 20 episode 6).

Broadcast at a vital point in time when Britain's public and politicians alike needed to wake-up to the power of domestic manufacturing as a socio-economic engine, the usually 'troublesome trio' made a very powerful "Made in Britain" boast.

With Buckingham Palace as backdrop, and The Mall deployed as the 'nation's driveway', a plethora of UK made vehicles were displayed to invoke national pride and regenerate multi-stakeholder interests.

Whilst the turnout was strong, with many firms highlighting their many diffferent types of vehicles, the programme was understandably unable to draw all UK producers, and of those shown, only (again understandably) showcased the typically most exciting and glamourous.

Thus to compliment Top Gear's effort, investment-auto-motives presents a more exhaustive list:
(along with with basic investor status)
NYSE – New York Stock Exchange
LSE – London Stock Exchange
TSE – Tokyo Stock Exchange
“BF” – Bourse Frankfurt
“BP”– Bourse de Paris
BSE – Bombay (Mumbai) Stock Exchange

Mass Volume Production Vehicles:
Nissan (publicly traded on TSE) [Renault traded on “BP”]
Toyota (publicly traded on NYSE / TSE)
Honda (publicly traded on NYSE / TSE)
Vauxhall [cars and licenced vans] (GM publicly traded on NYSE)
Mini (owned by BMW) [BMW traded on “BF”]

Mid Volume Production Vehicles:
Jaguar - Land Rover (owned by TATA Motors, traded on BSE and NYSE)

Intermediate Volume Production Vehicles:
Aston Martin Lagonda (privately owned)
Rolls-Royce (BMW Group)
Bentley (Volkswagen Group)
McLaren (privately owned)

Low Volume Production Vehicles:
Morgan Motor (privately owned)
Ginetta (privately owned)
Marcos (privately owned)
Noble (privately owned)
Caterham (privately owned)
Westfield (privately owned)
MK (privately owned)
Ariel (privately owned)
Briggs [BAC] (privately owned)
Bristol (owned by KamKorp)
David Brown (privately owned)
Radical (privately owned)
Grinnal (privately owned)
Ultima (privately owned)
Arash (privately owned)
TVR (privately owned) [currently non producing]
Connaught (privately owned) [Status unknown]
Lister (owned by Warrantywise)
London Taxis International (owned by Geely of China)
MetroCab (owned by Kamkorp)
JZR Trikes (privately owned)
Triking (privately owned)

Vehicle Reconfiguration Companies:
Bowler Motorsport (Land Rover Modification) (privately owned)
Twisted Automotive (Land Rover Adaption) (privately owned)
Overfinch (Range Rover Adaption) (privately owned)

Kahn Design (Range Rover Adaption) (owned by Kahn Group)
Chelsea Truck Company (LR Defender Adaption) (subsiduary of Kahn Group)
Urban Truck (LR Defender Adaption)
Coleman Milne (Limousines and Hearses body-fitters)
MacNellie (Chassis-Cab body-fitters)
Alloy Bodies (Chassis-Cab body-fitters)

Truck, Bus and Coach Producers:
Leyland Trucks [DAF branded) [owned by PACCAR Inc, USA] (traded on NYSE)
Wrightbus (privately owned)
Alexander-Dennis [inc Plaxton] (privately owned)

Agricultural and Industrial Vehicle Producers:
JCB (privately owned)
CaseNewHolland (publicly traded via CNH Industrial NV on NYSE)

Military Vehicles:
BAE Systems - Land Systems Division (Group publicly traded on LSE)
Land Rover (part of JLR, owned by TATA Motors, see above)
Marshall ADG (privately owned)

Motorcycle Producers:
Triumph Motorcycles (privately owned)
Norton Motorcycles (privately owned)
Ariel [tbc] (privately owned0
Hesketh (privately owned)
CCM [tbc] (privately owned)
Metisse [tbc] (privately owned)

Product Engineering Consultants:
Ricardo plc (publicly traded on LSE)
Williams GP Holdings (publicly traded on DAX)
Prodrive (privately owned)
Cosworth (privately owned)

Specialist Components:
Hewland [gearboxes] (privately owned)
Torotrack plc (publicly traded)
Xtrac (privately owned)
Zytec (privately owned)

Auto Industry Facilities Constructors -

Rolton Group (privately owned)

The Take Away -

This web-log started by comparing the very different televisual production formats of the 'Top Gear' programme, in its original “news-worthy” vs “light-entertainment” guises. And questions whether the present format requires yet another re-shuffle, into “Version 3.0”?

The 2002 change-over was undertaken for good reason, although very belated. Even with a succession of new presenters, including Clarkson and May, the original template had become somewhat stale and irrelevant for a new generation of viewers. increasingly less attuned to the very much changed mindsets of 1990s and 2000s drivers.

Unlike the demographgic and sensibilities of the 1970s and early 1980s motorists (predominantly middle aged males and middle class females) by the 1990s a much wider age range of car owner and user had become apparent. Now both sexes across the full age spectrum, with a higher disposable income, and who for the most part were not so necessarily economically and technically orientated as their parents generation. It was a very different era to that in which 'Top Gear' had originally been born.

By the 2000s cars had increasingly become both more functional for the more utilitarian driver (eg MPVs), and critically more socially symbolic to the majority of “lifestyle aspirationals”, thanks to the economic rising tide of the mid 1980s to 2008, which had in turn underpinned the popular rise of premium badged cars (eg GTI thereafter BMW, Audi etc).

Those good times had then substantially changed the face of UK motoring, and more presciently, the very mentality of the mass populace. That credit-fueled, media-led and youth orientated 30 year span had gradually eroded the practicality and seriousness engendered by the previous Baby-Boomer generation and esposued by 'Top Gear' version 1.0.

Likewise a dramatic shift has occured again, one in which we should perhaps “look back to the future”.

Today's economic 'New Norm' of managed low inflation mated with only gradual income rises, means that even older “Generation Xers”, aswell as younger “Yers” and newer “Milennials” have in the vast majority of cases been literally forced to adjust and adopt the more cautious and sensible economic outlook last seen by their Baby-Boomer parents and grand-parents.

Given this broad Western reality, a new era introduced by a new “version 3” format would logically be in product conceptualisation phase by either the strategy executives within the core of the BBC, BBC Worldwide managers, or possibly by Clarkson-Hammond-May themselves (as possible syndicate producers in their own right).

The reason for this new era would be:

A. an answer to the viewer 'over-dose' of 'Top Gear 2.0”, which has run for so long, and has been arguably worn-out by continual re-runs on the Dave Channel.

B. the need to remould the programme to fit the far more serious Western socio-economic climate of today.

C. the possibility of better honing the individual international versions for local markets

D. the future “coverage” potential of a now rebounding UK Autos “High Value Manufacturing” scene.

The fact is that Top Gear 2.0's effective 'blokey' escapism was very much required for a period during which the UK's own domestic automotive manufacturing climate had slowed dramatically.

But a new re-formatted 'Top Gear 3.0' could feasibly merge the best of versions 1.0 and 2.0, thereby adding more informative consumer insights for cash-strapped motorists, a far higher technical and industrial dimension to re-enthuse the country's new apprentices, plus critically central and local government supported industrial zones and critically the UK's domestic and FDI investment communities.

To this end 'Top Gear' should once again re-align itself and induce itself with a new automotive 'spirit of ecstacy' that befits the more upbeat yet cautiously sensible zeitgeist.

Post Script -

Much 'Said In (the) Jest' of Jezza -

Clarkson's massive popularity amongst broad swathes of Brits of all colours and creeds, may very well be because they themselves feel hemmed-in by the overt political correctness of modern life, to which 'Jezza' (through his somewhat naughty schoolboy manner) simply refuses to comply  Something which in actuality many think but dare not do.

But even “the schoolboy” recognises what is offensive to others, and so when seemingly requested to sing the rhyme “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” by the film-makers, he intentionally mumbled the offensive word.

This post script is not here to defend the manner and behaviour of an extremely well paid and comfortably well off TV presenter – his enormous salary is no doubt more offensive to those viewers who scrape-by on little – but it must be recognised that Clarkson seems to be the sociological release valve for many in Britain.

Today's ethereal but all too real Big-Brother pan-optical authoritarianism (via CCTV and Web scanning) plus the societal diktats of modern Britain (often generated by the improportional interests of minority interest groups) appears the antithesis of what previously made Britain great.

There should never be an atmosphere of majority racism, sexism etc, but the truisms of the self-interest tribal behaviour across many different social tribes (from “hoody” street gangs to jewish nepotism to oxbridge “boys clubs”) cannot be denied. Strength and power has always been retained and gained by a core collective.

However, it is the overtly politicised modern social atmosphere in which people can say virtually nothing, with the press deployed as manufactured mass mouthpieces, which has indoctrinated many with a kind of ever-present schizophrenic animosity and guilt.

It is this reality which has led to the popularity of Nigel Farage and UKIP, not so much because of its headline anti-EU, anti-immigration stance, but precisely because Farage weighs against the atmosphere of over-whelming politicised social oppression.

And so likewise, akin to the schoolboy japes of yesteryear's heavily regulated and repressed public schools, people of all colours, creeds and sexes ironically subliminally live vicariously through Clarkson's seeming Neanderthal manner.

To intentionally re-deploy the 1970s wording, no doubt many “honkies”, “chalkies” and “but-buts” will be metaphorically honking their car horns for Clarkson, and doing so not because they are secretly racist, but simply because they've had enough of a constantly politicised “thin ice” society which fragments people into ultimately competing groups; and in which for many even experienced truisms cannot even be muttered.

Britain's Union Flag is of course “red, white and blue”...but perhaps another version should be created for periodic illustrations of social unity in “white, black and brown”.


Beyond the instances of racism caused by group indoctrination against other colours or creeds, racism itself will all too naturally be the reactionary result  of those individuals who themselves have been violently and/or psychologically victimised by another distinctly homogeneous group.

Society at large must be very very watchful of this type of behaviour - especially that of distinct group vs an individual -  often using the tactics of socially enabled guerrilla warfare (eg social exclusion,  mobility constraint to enable observation of personal movement patterns, unyielding direct and indirect persecution, premeditated violence masked as "unfortunate incident", leading to intended isolation and psychological destruction of that person).

Without a doubt, "Not on my watch" should be society's watchword.