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An American is left to salvage BBC's ailing 'Top Gear'
[LONDON] In the US television sitcom "Friends", struggling actor Joey relies on a winning personality to compensate for his naivete, stumbling into everything from advertising gigs to dates. Now Matt LeBlanc, who played Joey, has lucked into a similar role in the UK
The American actor is poised to take the lead at "Top Gear", the British Broadcasting Corp's most lucrative entertainment franchise, after star presenter Jeremy Clarkson left the car show and his replacement, radio host Chris Evans, flopped almost instantly.
A lot is riding on the success of LeBlanc. In addition to entertaining viewers at home, the show is one of the UK's biggest cultural exports. It generates more than £50 million ($65 million) a year in international sales of programming, toys and games for the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
That revenue is becoming more important to the world's largest and oldest public broadcaster as the government cuts its funding.
UK viewership of the last "Top Gear" episode featuring Evans fell to 1.9 million, down from 5.3 million for Clarkson's finale a year ago. Reviewers panned the DJ's shouting delivery and said the new team lacked the chemistry of Clarkson and co-stars Richard Hammond and James May - known for stunts like driving through Argentina with a license plate that appeared to hint at the 1982 Falklands War.
"It was always going to be a difficult brief to reinvent a format that way," said Tim Davie, BBC Worldwide's chief executive officer. "We're still just warming up our engines."
To try to jump-start international growth, BBC Worldwide in late 2014 sold a 49.9 per cent stake in US channel BBC America to AMC Networks Inc, the home of drama series like "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
The US$200 million deal handed operational control of BBC America, including advertising sales, to AMC.
Last year, BBC Worldwide linked up with Sony Corp on a television venture in India, and Mr Davie said he was scouting around for similar opportunities in other markets.
"There's absolutely no reason we couldn't do other partnerships," Mr Davie said in an interview at BBC Worldwide's headquarters in a former BBC broadcast studio in London. "This is an age where scale counts."
BBC Worldwide returned £222.2 million to the BBC in the year through March 31. It wants to lift the total contribution to £1.2 billion over the next five years, 30 per cent more than in the previous half decade.
BBC Worldwide plans to introduce a Netflix-style online streaming service in the US later this year, Mr Davie said, without specifying a date. The subscription-based outlet will feature shows from the BBC archives, along with more recent programming.
Worldwide is also working with Amazon Inc on "The Collection," a drama about a French fashion house in the aftermath of World War II.
The BBC also faces new competition as it prepares to shoot a new season of "Top Gear" with LeBlanc, who joined as Evans's sidekick. Clarkson, who was dismissed last year after a fracas with a producer, has started work on a competing series called "The Grand Tour" that debuts on Amazon's Prime streaming service in the fall.
In hiring LeBlanc, a rare example of a US star headlining a quintessentially British show, the BBC is taking a page from Hollywood movie studios, which have begun casting non-US actors to appeal to growing international markets.
Mr Davie said the BBC's priority remains serving UK television-owning households, which pay an annual license fee of £145.50 that funds the broadcaster. LeBlanc is well-known in the UK, Mr Davie said, because he appeared as a guest on "Top Gear" and in "Episodes", a British-American sitcom in which he played a fictionalised version of himself.
"We didn't go out saying, 'We must get an international cast member to build a global audience,'" he said. "We went out to get the best lineup."
LeBlanc's name recognition may be helping with international sales. The new "Top Gear" has been sold in more than 130 territories, Mr Davie said. That's up from 89 for last year's series at the same stage, the BBC said, though short of the 236 countries and regions the last Clarkson-led episodes eventually reached.
In the US, the series' season premiere with Evans and LeBlanc drew just 388,000 viewers, down from 530,000 for the previous version with Clarkson. The ratings are above averages for BBC America in the same time slot, BBC Worldwide said.
"The presenting team, if it's more international and broadens the international appeal, could have been part of the calculation," said Tim Westcott, senior principal analyst at research firm IHS.