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The sun set on the British Empire, but Jeremy Clarkson’s ‘Top Gear’ is still a global superpower

(Files) In this file picture taken on September 24, 2009, British television BBC presenter of motor show "Top Gear" Jeremy Clarkson is pictured while he drives an Aston Martin car on Transfagarasan road close to Sibiu city, 300 km northwest from Bucharest.  AFP PHOTO / ANA POENARIU
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After what has been described by the BBC as a "fracas" and what the British media says was a fist-fight over catering, Jeremy Clarkson, host of the British broadcaster's flagship driving show "Top Gear," has been suspended. The future of the show hangs in the balance.

For some observers, there might be a sigh of relief. Clarkson's brash personality had rubbed many people the wrong way, and his hostility to political correctness had led him to controversial moments: Most notoriously, leaked video of him uttering a racial slur led to a rare apology from the 54-year-old. His enormous salary, reported to be £14 million ($20 million) in 2013, didn't help.

But for the BBC, it's a problem. That's because, for all the money thrown at Clarkson and his co-hosts (Richard Hammond and James May), the enormous international success of the show had made it extremely profitable for the public-service broadcaster. And more importantly, Top Gear's global audience also provided something intangible: Soft power.

Since a Clarkson-helmed relaunch in 2002, "Top Gear" has become one of the BBC's biggest successes, if not the biggest. Much of that has come from outside of Britain: In 2013, Guinness World Records crowned the show the "world's most widely watched factual TV program," noting that the original British version was shown in 214 territories worldwide from "Ghana to Guatemala, Moldova to Myanmar." The show's estimated audience is 350 million. Earlier this year, the first episode of the show's 22nd season was simultaneously broadcast in over 50 different countries in four different continents, according to the BBC.

That reach is an important financial asset for the BBC. While the state broadcaster is mostly funded by a "license fee" required of every British television owner, roughly a quarter of its revenue come from its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which sells the rights to BBC shows and operates BBC World News. In 2012/2013, 27 percent of the BBC's commercial sales came from their "superbrands," which included popular shows like "Doctor Who" and "Top Gear": The British press estimate that "Top Gear" alone makes  $224 million  in revenue.

The BBC’s “Top Gear” will be off the air on Sunday, in light of its host Jeremy Clarkson’s suspension. The show is famous worldwide, with episodes broadcast in more than 200 countries and territories. (Video: Reuters)

That's a huge amount of money and, given the uncertain future of the license fee, financial successes like "Top Gear" will only become more important for the BBC in the future. The show's soft power that might prove even more irreplaceable.  Britain is no longer the superpower  it once was, and the days of the British empire are long gone. In the 21st century, the country can no longer use military might or economic success to get its way: Instead, it had to cultivate a softer form of power, using institutions like the British Council, the British Museum, and even the royal family to sow good will and influence other countries.

The BBC's global reach is very much a part of that: While its scale and scope may make it seem quite different to something like Voice of America or Russia Today, and it is both editorially and financially independent of the British government, the Royal Charter that sets out the public purpose of the broadcaster says it must be "representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities" and "bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK." At points, those purposes are made very clear – the BBC has long considered a plan to broadcast directly into North Korea, for example.

The soft power wielded by "Top Gear" is immense. Consider, for example, the show's immense popularity in Iran, where there was a bitter backlash in 2012 when an episode of the show was dropped for an interview with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. BBC Worldwide currently produces local versions  of "Top Gear" in the U.S., China, Russia, Australia, France and South Korea.

Yet the show may not always use its power wisely. Sometimes, the sight of three extremely wealthy, somewhat arrogant, and very white British people treating exotic locales as playgrounds comes across as plainly neo-colonialist. At other points, they're just jerks: The list of international incidents caused by the show is remarkably long. In 2011, the Mexican  ambassador to Britain complained after the show described Mexicans as "lazy, feckless and flatulent," and last year Clarkson had to escape from Argentina after a local mob became incensed that the crew were using license plates that appeared to reference the Falklands War. Other insulted parties include India, Albania, Burma and, of course, Germany.

Yet for all of Clarkson and company's old-school entitlement, it's largely their personalities that drive the show's international popularity. "His humor is so inappropriate and not at all what you hear on state TV -- that must account for some of its appeal," the BBC's Darius Bazargan said of Clarkson's popularity in Iran in 2013, adding that Clarkson was  "about as opposite to [now former] President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as you can get."

Clarkson positions himself as a very British anti-hero, with the fast cars and nice watches of James Bond, the quotability of Winston Churchill  and the disdain for foreign law and culture of a vacationing Brit. Despite all the signs he's very much an insider (he's a member of the "Chipping Norton set" and friendly with the British prime minister), he portrays himself as an outsider, and it works.

At the time of writing, a brief stroll through the almost 500,000 signatures on a petition for the BBC to reinstate Clarkson shows fans from the U.S., Holland, Latvia, Jamaica, Canada, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Norway, France and Italy (and probably many more). "Er ist der beste & humorvollste moderator," wrote one fan from Switzerland. "He is a face of british tv," wrote another from Poland.

These fans needn't worry. Even if Clarkson is replaced on "Top Gear," he will likely get another show somewhere else. The BBC may own the rights to "Top Gear," but Clarkson has rebuffed offers from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky Television in the past, and it's likely his co-hosts would follow him, too.

See also

How this seemingly innocuous tweet forced a British MP to resign

The dark side of Winston Churchill’s legacy no one should forget

Why everyone in Britain is tweeting ‘Ed Balls’ today