Succession Is Inspired By These Real — And Dramatic — Media Moguls

Succession is the HBO drama out June 3 poised to fill the Billions-shaped hole in my heart this summer. At the show's start, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the founder of a massive media conglomerate, surprises his kids — and not in a welcome way. The mogul is nearing 80, and his assumed impending retirement has caused jostling among his three children. The eldest, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), feels entitled to the company but doesn’t quite possess his father’s star-power; Roman (Kieran Culkin) is a bandana-wearing goof; and the only Roy daughter, Shiv (Sarah Snook), has removed herself from the running entirely. Deciding that none of his children are fit for the job, Roy chooses to hold onto his power for as long as possible.
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The theme of a mean old patriarch forcing his children to compete for his fortune is nothing new. Take Shakespeare’s King Lear, or the endless grunts of disapproval J.P. Getty (Donald Sutherland) makes on Trust when confronted with his sons, all of whom he finds uniquely disappointing and unfit to inherit the oil empire.
Unlike those fictional works, Succession takes place firmly within the contemporary American media landscape. Essentially, it's based in immediate reality. Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, confirmed as much during an interview with Variety. While the Roy family is fictional, Armstrong researched famous media families like Murdochs (who own News Corp., aka Fox) and the Redstones (who own Viacom) when shaping the drama.
Armstrong has a clear interest in this subject material — the British screenwriter wrote Murdoch, a movie that takes place over the course of Rupert Murdoch’s 78th birthday. In the movie script, Murdoch’s four children grapple and scheme after their father demands they give his two young children voting rights on the family trust (a succession drama in its own right). The script was based on true events.
Rather than basing Succession's story on one particular family like he did in Murdoch, Armstrong created an amalgamation of various powerful families. “We wanted to draw on all the good, rich stories there are about succession and about the high politics,” Armstrong said during TCA 2018. These stories include the Murdochs, the Redstones, and even Queen Elizabeth I, whose son Charles desperately wanted to become king.
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There’s certainly no dearth of inspiration. As Armstrong pointed out during a conversation with Build, most of America’s major TV networks are owned by private families. "There are a lot of influential media families in the U.S. for us to think about and draw on,” he said. “You have CBS, which is owned by Viacom, which is a family business (the Redstones). You have NBC, which is a family business (the Roberts). You have the Sinclair family who are buying up most of local TV.” These families informed the Roys – but the Roys are still firmly fictional. Armstrong stated at TCA that his Murdoch script is only “deeply in the background” of Succession.
It’s undeniably curious, though, that Succession was announced only a year after the Redstone family, which owns Viacom and CBS, underwent its own very public succession debacle. For years, Sumner Redstone avoided discussing his succession plan by saying he wasn’t going to die. In 2016, the 92-year-old titan stepped down and plunged Viacom into turmoil. The saga could certainly merit its own TV show.
More broadly, Succession is one of many recent shows to focus on the lives of the 1% — joining the ranks of Billions, Trust, and the Dynasty reboot. Maybe it’s a response to the increasingly unequal global economic conditions. “We’re seeing this unparalleled oligarchical planet that we’re living in,” EP Adam McKay said at TCA.
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Succession, in particular, shows the consequences of consolidated power and, as McKay said, “congealed wealth” in one family. “What happens when this kind of power is handed down through bloodlines. How does that affect the world around it? How does that affect the family members?” McKay asked at TCA.
I guess we’ll find out in Succession, starts on Sunday, June 3 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
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