Pay TV gets first dibs on Top Gear

<i>Top Gear</i> presenters Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May.
Top Gear presenters Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May.

Fans of the iconic motoring show Top Gear will have to invest in a pay TV subscription to access first-run episodes of the series under a new deal.

The BBC's Australian sales arm, BBC Worldwide Australasia, has signed a deal with Channel Nine that will allow the BBC's own local pay channel, BBC Knowledge, to air episodes before free-to-air television can.

To Foxtel's credit, and in keeping with the fast-tracking philosophy which is driving pay TV's programming strategy, new episodes will screen only days after they air in Britain.

But that leaves Australian fans without pay TV in limbo.

Channel Nine has not committed to consistently screening the episodes, only saying they would air on Nine and the digital channel Go.

Nine would be free to screen new episodes eight weeks after airing on pay TV under the deal.

While at first glance that may seem like a delay, the previous deal contained no provision for how quickly episodes would be seen on Australian TV.

The BBC is satisfied that the new contract, which allows episodes of the show to be seen via pay TV almost to the day and date with Britain, is a good deal for fans.

Nine will make the episodes available on their online catch-up service at NineMSN, but only once they have aired on Nine's television channels.

Also left in limbo is the Australian version of the series.

Four seasons of the show were produced, featuring, at different times, Charlie Cox, Steve Pizzati, Warren Brown, James Morrison, Shane Jacobson and Ewen Page.

At this stage, a fifth season is not likely.

Nine spectacularly poached Top Gear from SBS in 2009.

Episodes of the British series had built a loyal following on SBS and had, at their most popular, cracked the 1 million-viewer mark.

Nine struggled to re-establish that loyalty in a commercial environment and audiences drifted. In part that was due to Nine's inconsistent scheduling of the series, and the cutting of episodes to fit scheduled start and finish times.

The 19th series of Top Gear, featuring Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, airs in early 2013.

The BBC Worldwide director of sales, Julie Dowding, describes the deal as "significant".

"We are fast-tracking Top Gear to Australia by closing the transmission window [and] offering premium value to viewers on our wholly owned channel BBC Knowledge," she said.

Ms Dowding also said the BBC was "ensuring that all Australians get the opportunity to view Top Gear by continuing our successful relationship with the Nine Network".

Top Gear screens in 244 territories worldwide.

It was recently named the world's most widely watched factual TV program by the Guinness World Records.

This story Pay TV gets first dibs on Top Gear first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.