There’s a debate revving up across the pond between several U.K.-based publications and the producers of BBC-owned Top Gear, a show for automotive diehards that’s become something of a phenomenon.
Seen by over 350 million viewers across 170 countries, the hit series follows the adventures of its hosts—Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May—and their various driving exploits, track testing everything from blue collar workhorses like the Volkswagen Golf to engineering pinnacles like the pavement incinerating Bugatti Veyron.
For the most part, the show is an enjoyable cross of gamesmanship and schoolboy jockeying. The hosts’ natural chemistry translates handily into something magnetic for its audience, and only gets reinforced as they get behind the wheels of roaring V12 engines.
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Hanging over the debate is as nebulous an issue as there was; one which, in many ways, asks us to reconsider the lines between entertainment and reporting. The controversy in question stems from a recent episode that was heavily panned by Ben Webster of The Times (unfortunately the article is behind a paywall).
During the show, hosts Jeremy Clarkson and James May set course on a 60-mile journey in an electric vehicle, the Nissan LEAF. Before they could conclude their journey, however, the vehicle apparently runs out of juice, prompting its drivers to declare that “electric cars are not the future.”
But here’s where the controversy comes in. The Guardian reports:
But it wasn’t unexpected: Nissan has a monitoring device in the car which transmits information on the state of the battery. This shows that, while the company delivered the car to Top Gear fully charged, the programme-makers ran the battery down before Clarkson and May set off, until only 40% of the charge was left. Moreover, they must have known this, as the electronic display tells the driver how many miles’ worth of electricity they have, and the sat-nav tells them if they don’t have enough charge to reach their destination. In this case it told them – before they set out on their 60-mile journey – that they had 30 miles’ worth of electricity. But, as Ben Webster of the Times reported earlier this week, “at no point were viewers told that the battery had been more than half empty at the start of the trip.”
The report continues:
It gets worse. As Webster points out, in order to stage a breakdown in Lincoln, “it appeared that the Leaf was driven in loops for more than 10 miles in Lincoln until the battery was flat.”
Top Gear has since responded to the allegations, claiming, “We never, at any point in the film, said that we were testing the range claims of the vehicles, nor did we say that the vehicles wouldn’t achieve their claimed range.” However, this wouldn’t be the first time the show’s been criticized for undermining the potency of electric vehicles, as a recent suit from Tesla (who claim their battery life was misrepresented) would seem to demonstrate.
The question being posed is this: Should the BBC uphold its crown jewel to the same accuracy as its other publications? It’s a question likely at the heart of any media faction, entertainment or otherwise.
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Defenders of the show claim that “it’s all in fun,” and that facts reported on the show should be taken with a grain of salt.
Critics, such as those noted above, feel as though the show’s testosterone-laden premise seems intent on seeing the emerging electric car market fail.
So who’s right?
It’s difficult to say. The show itself plays heavily on the fantasies of its audience: Most consumers will never know what it’s like to be behind the wheel of a Ferrari Enzo. And at the same time, the show itself appeals to an extremely niche segment of the market: the well-informed car enthusiast.
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The Nissan LEAF targets eco- and pocket-conscious consumers, a decidedly different segment of market. As history would demonstrate, there’s little trickle down from world class racing technology to consumer vehicles.
Racing buffs would hold that gasoline-powered vehicles are instrumental to carry on the sport’s tradition (perhaps none clearer than the push back stemming from F1’s announcement of an imminent switch to electric vehicles in 2014). It’s a philosophy that’d seemingly go hand-in-hand with the type of thrill Top Gear propagates.
Still, this much is clear: The needs of the consumer market (passenger safety, fuel economy, etc.) have little overlap with what racing enthusiasts want (speed, power, etc.), and it seems unlikely that the show would have any discerning interest in dictating what consumers purchase.
But can Top Gear kill consumer desire for the electric car? It’s unlikely they’d be able to, and there’s no data to suggest that the show—despite its massive audience—has any hold over the buying patterns of its audience the way Oprah would with her book club. Cars are an expensive purchasing decision, one for which most consumers would certainly conduct extensive homework.
In a way, to me it seems that asking Top Gear to stop making fun of electric vehicles is kind of like asking Playboy to tone down on the naked women. Could a non-Playboy reader come across a magazine and find it offensive? Possibly. But most Playboy readers don’t turn to the magazine explicitly for the articles, and similarly, Top Gear fans don’t watch the show for escapist lessons in modesty.
And neither should car buyers.