Has the BBC axed its biggest star - and cash cow?

The suspension of one of the BBC's star presenters after he allegedly punched a producer over catering has sparked a massive online campaign for his reinstatement—and fears the UK broadcaster may have killed one of its biggest cash cows.

Jeremy Clarkson, the controversial presenter of the BBC's hit motoring franchise "Top Gear" was suspended on Monday following what was described by the broadcaster as a "fracas with a BBC producer." It has been alleged in various reports that Clarkson "punched" a producer over failing to arrange an evening meal after filming north-east England.

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Jeremy Clarkson
The Times | Gallo Images | Getty Images
Jeremy Clarkson

In an online statement released Tuesday, the BBC said: "Following a fracas with a BBC producer, Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended pending an investigation. No one else has been suspended. Top Gear will not be broadcast this Sunday. The BBC will be making no further comment at this time."

The BBC said it would not show Sunday's episode of the globally popular show and might drop the final two episodes in the series.

Clarkson has yet to comment on the allegations, although The Sun tabloid newspaper has cited an unnamed source as saying the presenter has denied punching anyone.

Following Clarkson's suspension Tuesday, political blogger Guido Fawkes started an online petition to reinstate him, alongside the hashtag #BringBackClarkson. By mid-morning Wednesday, the petition had been signed by nearly 300,000 people.

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Stakes high for BBC

The fact that Clarkson has form in making controversial comments will make the BBC's decision whether to reinstate the presenter harder. Clarkson has attracted criticism after a leaked video appeared to show Clarkson using an offensive racist word. Clarkson himself has said that the BBC has told him he will be sacked if he makes "one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time."

The trouble is that for the BBC, "Top Gear" is inextricably linked with Clarkson who first joined the show in 1988, and the program brings in millions of pounds worth in revenues for the publically-funded broadcaster and its global commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

According to the BBC's 2014 Annual Review, "Top Gear" is among BBC Worldwide's "major sales successes" and is sold to 214 territories worldwide. With an estimated global audience of 350 million viewers, it's not surprising that in 2012 it gained the Guinness World Record for the most watched factual program in the world.

Alongside program deals with other countries, DVDs, mobile games, branded automotive accessories and clothes, the "BBC Top Gear magazine", mugs to mouse-mats are just a few of the branded merchandise the BBC earns money from.

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Showing just how popular the show is, Series 21 of "Top Gear" was the second-most popular program on the BBC's iPlayer (after "Sherlock") with 4.2 million requests. The opening episode of the latest series in January was broadcast simultaneously in 55 countries. The BBC also notes in its review that the DVD "Top Gear: The Perfect road trip" was named the U.K.'s best-selling TV DVD of 2013.

As such, "Top Gear" has certainly contributed substantially to the success and revenues of BBC Worldwide. According to its 2013/2014 review, its "Global Markets" business (Asia, Central Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa, Latin America and Western Europe and are collectively known within BBC Worldwide as the Global Markets) saw sales up 10.8 percent at £279.1 million in 2014, from the previous year.

Headline profit from these regions, meanwhile, was up 45.2 percent to £39.5 million, "driven by growth in TV and digital sales and a good performance from our branded services," the BBC said.

Against this backdrop, sacking Clarkson could be a very risky move for the BBC. But as, the broadcaster's head of television, Danny Cohen, warned Clarkson after his last misdemeanour involving the alleged racially offensive term "no one person is bigger than the BBC."

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