Amazon’s signing of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond is, as much of the media coverage has focussed on, a clear sign that the firm finally intends for its Prime Instant Video service to compete with Netflix for major league content.
By bagging exclusive rights to a new show with a pre-existing fanbase simply desperate to see the trio back on their screens, Amazon has boosted public awareness of its streaming service and dramatically increased its desirability.
This is clearly important but it’s not all that the deal achieves.
As well as pleasing the crowds by streaming Clarkson, Hammond and May into their homes, Amazon has placed itself into competition with both the BBC and, potentially, Apple’s iTunes.
Instead of, as some have, comparing this deal with the decision to revive Ripper Street after the BBC shelved it, imagine if Amazon was around to pick up Star Trek when it was axed in 1969 and/or Doctor Who when it was dropped by the BBC in 1989 and not only revived the show(s) but pocketed some of the overseas sales and merchandise revenue generated in the years that followed.
That’s what’s happened here.
The former Top Gear trio aren’t simply three ageing British presenters keen to keep themselves in the public eye – they’re an established brand with proven appeal and a fanbase already conditioned to paying out for merchandise.
They and their new backers now stand to make a lot of cash from their work just as BBC Worldwide has over the past decade.
And no, the absence of the Top Gear brand doesn’t really matter here.
The global audience the trio attracted didn’t tune in because the show was named after a regional TV motoring strand which first popped up in the 1970’s – they watched because they liked what the trio got up to, not the brand they did it under.
That’s a good thing because the Top Gear brand of course remains with the BBC.
But the show’s theme tune – written by American rock band The Allman Brothers Band in 1972 – doesn’t belong to the corporation and unless their license to use it includes some exclusivity protection there’s nothing to stop Clarkson & Co from using it for their new show.
Equally, much of Top Gear’s format isn’t protectable – there’s nothing the BBC can do to stop the team driving a car around a race track to find its best speed, taking part in car-based challenges or making the occasional overseas film where they get to declare their astonishment at the scenery before them.
Of course Clarkson, Hammond, May and executive producer Andy Wilman may not want their new show to look exactly like Top Gear and after years of sticking largely to the same format will have a pile of ideas for new features and segments they might want to try out.
But the fact remains that a show with the cast of Top Gear, key behind the scenes talent from Top Gear, and the legal right to look a lot like Top Gear is now going to be in competition with Top Gear.
While the Amazon deal spares the BBC a ratings war with ITV or another UK broadcaster, the retail giant has said it’ll be looking to sell the show to broadcasters in countries where it doesn’t offer the Prime Instant Video service.
This means broadcasters will able to take their pick between a show with a known presenting team and built-in appeal or the re-tooled BBC version with a lead presenter far less familiar to – and in some cases utterly unknown by – local audiences.
It’s highly possible that some broadcasters could drop Top Gear in favour of the new show. Others might expect to pay less for Top Gear because of the initial uncertainty about how well it’ll do without its leading men or the fact that a rival broadcaster has bought the trio’s new show.
So there’s real potential for the BBC to see a marked fall-off in the money it gets from selling Top Gear abroad.
And the BBC’s merchandising efforts will now also be squeezed.
Amazon’s core activity is as a retailer so it’ll always want to earn by selling Top Gear DVDs, posters, calendars, annuals and CDs. But it’s now the exclusive home to a show which is likely to be merchandised with equal ferocity.
Whatever Clarkson, Hammond and May’s show ends up being called, you can be certain that the brand will end up on as many lines of merchandise as Top Gear does.
In every market in which the two shows compete, the BBC and its commercial partners will have to move away from selling merchandise emblazoned with Clarkson, Hammond and May’s faces and instead learn how to persuade people not to buy the items now featuring the trio’s images.
So that’s Netflix and the BBC who stand to lose out as a result of the Top Gear trio’s move to Amazon. But there’s a potential third loser – Apple.
Like Apple’s iTunes store, Amazon sells digital downloads of TV shows and films which can be watched on tablets and smartphones. Unlike purchases from iTunes, Amazon’s videos can also be watched on various Smart TVs and games consoles.
And yet iTunes continues to dominate sales and the public’s attention.
But what if Amazon’s deal gives it exclusive rights to the digital downloads of the new not-Top Gear show?
Might that be enough to grab the attention of those – Mac, iPhone and iPad users especially – who default to using iTunes over any other digital downloads store?
Even if it didn’t dislodge iTunes from the top spot, it would deprive Apple and other digital stores of a sale and chip away at customer loyalty.
When you step back to consider the wider possibilities this deal offers Amazon – more subscribers, revenue from merchandise and cash from other broadcasters – the reported $250m price tag starts to look far less extravagant and whole lot smarter than some reporting has suggested.