Since the late 1990s, British imports such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Dancing With the Stars and American Idol have become ratings blockbusters in the United States. But stateside success has eluded one of the biggest Brit hits of them all.
It's Top Gear, the rollicking reality/talk-show hybrid from the BBC that features three British automotive journalists gabbing about cars and performing elaborate and occasionally breathtaking stunts and challenges. The series, which has been shown here on BBC America, has been a worldwide sensation for almost 10 years and was recently the subject of a 60 Minutes profile. The studio segments are a must for celebrities — Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz have stopped by.
On November 21, a U.S. version of Top Gear finally arrives on cable network History. So why has it taken so long for a version of the show to originate in the nation where the automobile was born? It wasn't for lack of trying. Discovery Channel gave it a shot. So did NBC, which offered the series to Jay Leno (he passed) and made a pilot with comic Adam Carolla.
"It's a tough one to pull off," says Garth Ancier, the former head of BBC America. "It's all about the chemistry of the three hosts." Ancier believes that Jeremy Clarkson, the original Top Gear's acerbic, paunchy star, is the secret to the show's success. "He never had an interest in doing the American version, at any price," he says.
So History was faced with the challenge of finding its own personalities for the series. "You had to be a guy's guy who could be in a group of men who can make fun of each other," says executive producer Scott Messick. He thinks he has that in comic actor and passionate car enthusiast Adam Ferrara, movie stunt driver and competitive drift and rally racer Tanner Foust and NASCAR reporter Rutledge Wood. All three are younger and a bit more camera-ready than the British crew. They've already taped some dazzling driving stunts such as a "snake" race between a Viper automobile and a Cobra attack helicopter. Guests Kid Rock, Ty Burrell and Tim Allen will get behind the wheel for a "Big Star in a Small Car" race around a test track — a favorite segment of the British show.
History senior vice president David McKillop believes his network is the right home for an American Top Gear because of its overwhelmingly male audience, which already gathers large numbers for such guy-friendly fare as Pawn Stars. But with anxiety over high gas prices and anger over government bailouts for the auto industry, will viewers watch a weekly celebration of car culture? "America," McKillop says, "is in the mood to be entertained."
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