The former hosts of “Top Gear” are leaving pay TV for Amazon. Is this the biggest TV news in the world?

Once James May and Richard Hammond declined to return to the BBC following the firing of their “Top Gear” colleague Jeremy Clarkson, the trio became one of the biggest potential gets in all of show business. “Top Gear” was, after all, the most widely watched TV show on the planet — ¬and with that kind of popularity, someone was bound to take a chance on the irascible Clarkson and his mates. No matter which network Clarkson, Hammond, and May decided to sign with, it was going to be big news. But when the trio decided not to sign with a pay TV network, as one might have expected, or with Netflix, as was widely rumored, it changed the playing field.

A Big Boost for a Bit Player

Technically, Amazon Prime has more subscribers than Netflix, but that’s a misleading statistic as far as streaming goes. Amazon Prime subscribers get free shipping as well as video streaming, and many subscribe purely for the former. In terms of bandwidth, Netflix dominates over Amazon. In fact, even those who have subscriptions to Amazon Prime tend to use Netflix more than Amazon for streaming video.

“I feel like I’ve climbed out of a biplane and into a spaceship,” Clarkson said, in what was certainly a dig at his former employer. Is that comment just a cheap shot, or is there real truth buried under the snark? Is this the moment streaming became pay TV’s equal?

A Paradigm Shift

Given the worldwide popularity of “Top Gear,” it does seem as if online streaming represents a better distribution model than a variety of TV deals licensed to regional providers. Viewers all over the world will now be able to see their favorite car-driving curmudgeons in the same place. It also solves one problem American viewers had with “Top Gear” for many years: because the program was produced for commercial-free British TV, significant amounts of content often had to be cut to make room for commercial breaks.

TV networks should be wary of the new show’s potential. Amazon reportedly spent $250 million to make it happen, a budget that should allow the hosts to produce the same quality of programming that viewers came to love on the BBC. And online streaming providers have already proven they can do a lot with less money than that: Netflix reportedly spent $100 million on two seasons of “House of Cards,” which has won several awards since its debut in 2013.

This year, Netflix scored 34 Emmy nominations, and Amazon scored another 12. Granted, that’s not nearly as many as HBO’s 126 nominations, and it doesn’t even put Netflix in the top five networks in terms of nominations, but you can bet traditional pay TV channels are watching this trend with a lot of interest.

Luring Viewers and a Looming Showdown

When more than a million people signed a Change.org petition asking the BBC to reinstate Clarkson, “Top Gear” viewers showed where their loyalty lies. This new deal will undoubtedly draw a huge number of new viewers to Amazon. Meanwhile, “Top Gear” continues on the BBC, which recently announced Chris Evans will be one of the new hosts of the show, and the search for his co-hosts continues. So we’ll soon find out whether people watched that show for the hosts, or for the name.

When “Top Gear” battles the as-yet-unnamed new show for ratings, it’ll be more than just a battle to determine what made “Top Gear” what it was; it’ll be a battle of online streaming vs. pay TV for the future of video content delivery.

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