The BBC has entered into a business partnership with Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson in what is believed to be an unprecedented deal with an on-screen star.
BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, has taken a controlling stake in a company set up by Clarkson and Top Gear executive producer Andy Wilman, MediaGuardian.co.uk has learned. The BBC is understood to have paid a nominal fee of ?100 for the stake.
Clarkson is one of the BBC's highest paid stars and reportedly signed a new deal earlier this year to stay with Top Gear.
It is understood that before he re-signed with the BBC Clarkson was being wooed by both ITV and American Idol creator Simon Fuller.
At the time the BBC was concerned that if Clarkson left Top Gear, the show - a brand that BBC Worldwide is pushing globally - would be seriously damaged and international revenues would be hit.
A BBC Worldwide spokesman said: "In relation to the company [Bedder 6], BBC Worldwide decided to enter into a commercial arrangement to better exploit the commercial potential of Top Gear, predominantly internationally.
"This benefits the licence fee payer in the long run and means increased revenues are being invested back into programme making."
In addition to the presenter's salary Clarkson receives from the public service wing of the BBC, which makes Top Gear for BBC2, he also signed a deal with BBC Worldwide in May to market the brand in return for a share of the profits from spin-off commercial activity.
However, it has now emerged that last November BBC Worldwide took a stake in Clarkson and Wilman's company, Bedder 6, in a move that gives the pair a direct personal stake in the Top Gear brand.
BBC Worldwide owns just over 50% of Bedder 6, which was created by Clarkson and Wilman two years ago, according to documents filed at Companies House.
It is understood that Bedder 6 will be used as the main channel for the profits for Top Gear merchandising and some of the other commercial activities relating to the hit BBC2 motoring show, including foreign sales of the original UK production.
With Clarkson and Wilman owning 3,000 shares and 2,000 shares respectively in the company, they will be entitled to a share of the money from some of Top Gear's revenues.
Clarkson is the most high profile of Top Gear's three presenters, the others being Richard Hammond and James May, while Wilman has also played a key part in the success of the programme.
Wilman has worked with Clarkson since the late 1990s on shows such as Extreme Machines, in addition to Top Gear.
Unlike Clarkson, though, he has not made a significant amount from the show and is a member of BBC staff, listed as an executive producer in the corporation's factual and learning department.
The plan to give Clarkson and Wilman a greater say in Top Gear and a share of its profits appears to have been put in motion last autumn.
In November 2007 BBC Worldwide's headquarters in West London became the registered office for Bedder 6 - a vehicle set up by the Top Gear presenter and his executive producer in 2006. It is not known why the pair initially created the company.
Subsequently, three BBC Worldwide executives were made directors of Bedder 6: the BBC Commercial company secretary, James Stevenson, BBC Worldwide director of content and production Wayne Garvie, and BBC Magazines finance director Kevin Langford.
BBC Worldwide was then allotted 5,001 shares in Bedder 6 - giving it the majority stake in the company - though it is not known how much it paid for them.
The BBC's commercial arm also has 5,000 deferred shares, so if these shares are converted, the corporation could end up with two thirds of the business.
One source familiar with the deal said the move helped persuade Clarkson to stay with the BBC.
The source added that Clarkson and Wilman were now "brand guardians", working alongside BBC Worldwide directors to ensure the various versions of Top Gear and associated merchandise being rolled out around the world remain faithful to the BBC2 original.
"This is putting Jeremy at the heart of it. Before he had no real involvement in the other things going on around around the Top Gear brand," the insider said.
"This gives the business a P&L [profit and loss] in its own right. This is about pulling together the fragmented pieces to run it [Top Gear] as a single brand. It is rare that the BBC has run a brand on an 'end-to-end' basis like this."
Over the past 18 months, BBC Worldwide has embarked on an aggressive expansion drive, both in the UK and globally.
It has bought shares in independent TV companies such as The Queen co-producer Andy Harries' Left Bank Pictures, as well as buying a 75% stake in travel guides publisher Lonely Planet.
Top Gear is a success abroad, with broadcasters in the US, where the NBC network signed a deal in March, and Australia making their own versions.
Along with Lonely Planet, it is part of BBC Worldwide's new "global brands" business, headed by managing director Marcus Arthur.
The programme is often in the headlines - most recently for being censured by the BBC Trust for showing presenters drinking whilst driving during a special Polar episode.
The show also attracted media attention over a new pay deal for May and Hammond.
It is thought the new deal negotiated by co-host Jeremy Clarkson in June led to May and Hammond seeking better terms. They are now understood to have agreed to sign new deals to stay with Top Gear.
Clarkson's agent declined to comment.
No wonder Hamster & May wanted a pay rise.