Jeremy Clarkson, most recently in the news for denying responsibility for porn videos he liked on social media, was fired as host of Top Gear in March of 2015 after a "fracas" with a producer who served him a cold meat platter, rather than the requested steak. It was a blow-up too far for the BBC show, which has had so many controversies they merit their own Wikipedia page.
He made fun of - and this is a necessarily incomplete list - Mexicans, gays, Germans, the victims of a fatal train crash, Romanians, women, Asians and people with mental health issues, which is to say almost everyone who was not a phenomenally wealthy straight white man.
For many years, that approach was the most reliable predictor of broadcasting success. Piers Morgan in Britain, Alan Jones in Australia and Bill O'Reilly in the United States. Paul Holmes was our local exemplar, as he evolved in his later years from a fearless and often empathetic interviewer to someone who called United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan a "cheeky darkie". His children were Paul Henry and Mike Hosking, only one
of whom survives, but is doing quite well, in case you were wondering, and will
soon host our political debates on TVNZ 1 and probably do a pretty good job.
That's because, painful as it is to admit it, there's something about these men. They have an unerring self-confidence which manifests in both the outlandishness of their public statements, and the certitude with which they're delivered. So even if they're not actually based in fact or even particularly well-argued, they have the appearance of logic and "just common sense". And something about the scale of the audience and the implicit courage of their conviction makes for incredibly compelling viewing.
I remember being at the launch of a new season for Three a year or so ago. It was groaning with celebrities and advertising clients. A bunch of different very famous people went across the stage, and it was fine - we were drinking and eating and it was a good time.
Then Paul Henry took the stage. At this point he was months if not weeks away from the end of his TV career, and the way he slunk out, the indifference of it, suggests his heart had already left the industry. Yet even phoning it in to a client event he was electrifying - brilliantly funny and charismatic and devilish and you just couldn't look away. Which is the unfortunate problem with this generation of men: for all their faults, they are really, really good at their jobs.
Which brings us back to Clarkson and Top Gear. He left in one of the great shitstorms of recent television history, decamping with his colleagues James May and Richard Hammond to Amazon Prime and a new production entitled The Grand Tour. It would have been a logical point to say 'enough', admit that Top Gear had run its course and deal with it.
Only Top Gear was too big to fail, a juggernaut brand that earned the BBC about $70m a year. So they rebooted it, with the much more mild-mannered Joey from Friends (Matt LeBlanc to his mum) and the laddish Chris Evans, clearly intended as Clarkson II. The line-up lasted two months before Evans stepped down amid a little shitstorm of his own, with LeBlanc continuing alongside a rotation of other hosts.
So how is Top Gear in 2017? It's essentially the exact same show: LeBlanc is now in the Clarkson role, eye-balling the camera, delivering scripted monologues and bantering with guests and co-hosts. They still galavant around the world, racing exotic cars and doing big budget hijinks.
Only, it sucks now. LeBlanc's Clarkson impression is terrible, serving only to show how hard it is to make it look effortless. The new co-hosts are younger, gamer and definitely more well-rounded people. But they're not Hammond and May, and it's gone from being a riveting show that happened to feature cars to a car show, of interest only to those who are interested in cars.
It makes me wonder if we're actually witnessing the decline of an era. Strange timing, with an unerringly confident ex-pundit literally the most powerful person on Earth - but he got there by exploiting the fears of a particular generation of men. And part of what scares them is that they don't rule as of right anymore. They still have the best deal on the planet in the aggregate, but they can sense that things are moving fast.
The next generation of white male current affairs presenters - the likes of Jack Tame and Jesse Mulligan - are different, in both their politics and their style. They're more respectful of co-hosts, more curious about lives different to their own, and more consious that their own experience of the world is grounded in a privilege that is alien to much of their audience.
More often, though still not nearly often enough, the next generation of presenters aren't white men at all - Kanoa Lloyd, Hilary Barry, Mihingarangi Forbes, Rachel Smalley, Nadine Higgins and Lisa Owen sit at various stages on various conveyor belts. One day one might even be given a prime time slot alone. Imagine.
While that day will come, it's not here yet. Hosking remains atop the mountain, and his generation and his conviction remains the archetype around the western world. And while the type attracts immense loathing - there is a popular petition to have him removed from hosting TVNZ's debates - it's impossible to deny that there is a white hot skill to what they do. It's just waning, is all.
Just ask Mark Richardson, who desperately wants to join that club, but it's just not working. So if you like those guys, savour these days.
Because they won't last forever.