As the fourth and final season of HBO’s Emmy-winning juggernaut promises to stir up several months of media and social buzz, casual viewers might find themselves scratching their heads, mystified at all the attention the scripted series earns against the backdrop of far more urgent news stories.
But the show’s jolting clash of send-up, family drama, and board room drama is rooted in new stories, paralleling many of the true stories behind the family it’s based on — the Murdochs.
For anyone who has worked for a family-owned business, a media outlet, or an entertainment company, the storylines and characters have hints of familiarity.
There is also this fact: a high percentage of people who’ve worked in newspapers, TV, film or books have spent some time on the clock of a Murdoch company, the family-run empire the show most closely resembles.
Outside of the media and entertainment beltway cities of New York and LA, few people can keep track of the ever-changing company and all of its tentacles, at least outside of Fox News.
Among the companies that real-life patriarch Rupert Murdoch owns, used to own, or partially owned: perennial Oscar-winning studio Fox Searchlight; FOX Broadcast Network (The Masked Singer, The Simpsons, Glee); legendary blockbuster studio 20th Century Fox (Deadpool, The Greatest Showman, Avatar, Titanic); Emmy hitmaker FX; The Wall Street Journal; The National Geographic empire; The New York Post; HarperCollins Books; UK newspapers The Times and The Sun; and, once upon a time, TV Guide, IGN, and Rotten Tomatoes.
That means very wide swaths of journalists, execs, actors, screenwriters, authors, social media influencers, Democrats and Republicans owe some part of their careers to the Murdochs (including some of the people who’ve worked on this very start-up).
While few people who’ve passed through Murdoch company doors know much about the family – or even that they were the owners or partial owners of the entities signing their paychecks – many did get the chance to work closer to the nucleus of family members.
We asked two people who were once on the inside and have since left the empire: how closely did Succession’s Season Three showdowns hew to reality, and what do the true stories that have clearly inspired the series latest finale portend for the future of the Roy family?
From Acquirer to Target
It was a far cry from Gojo, but Fox did make a serious run at buying Time Warner in the summer of 2014. They never agreed on a price, as Time Warner was looking for a much bigger valuation, and then chairman Jeff Bewkes “probably did not want his legacy to be a sale to Rupert Murdoch, and he knew AT&T was having an identity crisis,” one former Fox exec explains.
As for Fox attempting to buy a big tech company, they did acquire MySpace, which, for anyone who doesn’t remember it, was Facebook before there was Facebook, albeit a more creative high school yearbook form of Facebook. MySpace even included something called PhotoBucket, which was Instagram before there was Instagram.
Behind the Kids’ Backs
Just as GoJo suddenly became more valuable and flipped the script on Waystar Royco, when streamers began to eat the legacy entertainment companies lunch, Fox suddenly became an acquisition target within two years of its big acquisition attempt.
Sometime in 2016 or 2017, Rupert Murdoch did go behind his kids’ backs and meet secretly with Disney’s Bob Iger. “The reason he did it was because of his kids. Rupert had tried a power-sharing arrangement and it wasn’t working.”
Oldest son Lachlan, who many see as the model for Roman Roy, had left the business in 2005 for Australia — reportedly fed up with his father siding with his contemporaries in the company over his son. He didn’t return for 10 years, so it was widely assumed that James (often considered the inspiration for Kendall) would take over the entire empire. “He had paid his dues, first in Asia, then running BSkyB, a top UK broadcast and satellite business (exceptionally well), then dealing with the nightmare of the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, then building relationships with institutional investors — while Lachlan was off to his own endeavors in Australia.”
Known more as the focused one with sharp business instincts, James had packed up his wife and kids to run the less glamorous divisions of the empire far from Hollywood and New York. He never seemed to be having anywhere near as much fun as Kendall, notes another former Fox exec.
Ten years went by before Lachlan returned to the U.S., and when he did, his father dropped him right back in at the top. “I don’t know whether there was resentment on James’s part when he returned, but I would not be surprised if there was,” says a former Fox exec. “It did not work especially well, the power-sharing arrangement. The assumption was, there would have been endless lawsuits after Rupert’s death.”
Giving the Shiv to the Sis
Far from the portrayal of Shiv, Elisabeth “Liz” Murdoch, the older sister of Lachlan and James, stayed away from the family business for years, leaving the machinations and power plays to her father and brothers.
Striking out on her own at 33, she built a successful production company in the UK and US, Shine, which launched some of the biggest franchises in reality TV, including American Idol and MasterChef. The company was ultimately acquired by Fox, much like Logan Roy eventually lured his daughter into the fold of the family business in Succession. “But apparently, Liz did not want to get involved in any inter-Murdoch squabbles. Unlike Shiv, she did not seem to have the throne in her sights.”
One parallel between Shiv and Liz does hold true. Both are notably to the left of their respective fathers politically.
Some time after the sale of Shine, Liz Murdoch founded an international production company called SISTER with the former chair and CEO of 20th Century Fox, Stacey Snider, and Jane Featherstone, which is behind BBC hit Girl/Haji, HBO’s Emmy-winning series Chernobyl, and recent HBO drama Landscapers. So Liz Murdoch could actually be considered “in the family” at HBO. (So much for your alter ego getting the likeable heroine treatment from your new “patriarch.”)
The Essential Lessons of Gerri
If there’s one realistic character in the series that you can learn from, that would be Gerri. Originally the Corporate Counsel, she becomes the interim CEO and Logan’s “human shield.”
Gerri toes the company line while drawing lines with the family members as diplomatically as possible. She refuses to get drawn into the Roy dramas and dysfunctions, despite her life being consumed by them, but manages to avoid alienating anyone.
According to one former 21st Century Fox exec, the person she most resembles is John Nallen, a longtime Murdoch executive who is “solid, liked, trusted, and always stayed away from the family drama (and was always impeccably polite). He did better than any other senior exec whose last name was not Murdoch.” Nallen is also a survivor, currently holding the role of COO of the new/remaining Fox Corp.
Is There a Real-Life Cousin Greg?
Greg might look a bit like the tall, boyishly handsome Peter Rice, a top Rupert lieutenant and “godson” figure who rose up to the top ranks at 21st Century Fox – and is now Chairman of Disney’s General Entertainment Content — but Rice is “no one’s errand boy or piñata,” says a Fox alum. “He’s the epitome of an English gentleman, but also smart, driven, incredibly competent and well-respected for the right reasons. And by the way, this never made the trades, but he personally negotiated the generous severance for those Fox employees who were pushed out by Disney.”
The Inspiration for Tom In-Law
As for the endlessly tormented Tom, Rupert does have an older daughter from his first marriage, Prudence, whose husband worked for the company in the UK. But the comedy and conflicts born of Tom’s suffering were surely created from the writers’ imaginations as caricatured examples of what can happen when in-laws are dropped into the cauldron of the family business.
Orchestral Maneuvers of the Mom
In Succession, patriarch Logan not only attends his ex-wife’s wedding, he goes behind the kids’ backs once again to team up with her to thwart a coup by his kids. Could the mother of Kendall, Roman, and Shiv’s “inspirations” have partnered up with Rupert for the Disney sale?
Says the former exec: “Her divorce from Rupert might have been the most expensive one in business history, at least at the time it happened (obviously, certain recent events eclipsed it in dollar terms). That sort of thing tends to create acrimony. But Rupert is capable of overcoming old traumas and lingering anger issues.”
Power After the Fall?
In the wake of being acquired by Disney, the Murdoch’s remaining empire is often referred to as “the stub.” It includes broadcast network FOX, Fox Sports, and the no longer as consequential but still influential Fox News, the inspiration for Succession‘s ATN network, which, in one episode, is behind the choosing of the future Republican presidential candidate. (In one of the more hair-raising satirical jabs, Roman courts the more extremist “firebrand” presidential candidate, Jaryd Mencken, for a “Deep State Conspiracy Hour” that he hopes could be “y’know, funny.”)
In the wake of their sale to Disney, the Murdochs as a family represent the second largest shareholders in the new combined conglomerate, which also includes Hulu, ESPN, ABC, Disney Channel and studios along with their former assets, the rebranded Searchlight, 20th Century Studios, and FX Network. But their combined share is still a single digit percentage. No board seats, no super-voting shares. “That ownership stake is in the hands of multiple people with different agendas and plans. Rupert traded his empire for a small piece of someone else’s, losing nearly all presence in Hollywood, and the world lost a great film studio and a collection of international networks second to none, as they are essentially getting dissolved by Disney.”
What remains of Fox, the new Fox Corp, is trying to rebuild via acquisition (Bento Box, Mar Vista, Tubi), but it still remains to be seen how well it will survive the increasingly competitive streaming-driven entertainment wars.
What becomes of Kendall?
If we look to his alter ego, James Murdoch, there’s the potential for great freedom on the other side of the company getting acquired, and a chance to fully cut bait. It could also give him the clearance to continue to play the part of high-profile critic and agitator to his father — and to GoJo.
After the Disney sale, James Murdoch not only fully exited Fox and the entertainment side of the business, he resigned from the board of News Corp in the summer of 2020, citing his “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions.” He later took on the company for its denial-fueled media coverage of climate change.
Since he left the fold, the former CEO of 21st Century Fox formed his own company, Lupa Systems, hired former top Disney, Fox, Sky, and Roku executives, and has invested in everything from ed tech and metaverse start-ups to Vice Media, a virtual music start-up, and a socially conscious news and entertainment video start-up. His wife, Kathryn, runs their philanthropic foundation, which is focused on “working to restore the health of our US democracy at a time of increasing polarization and dysfunction within the system.” That includes funds for more science-driven climate change reporting, local newsrooms, and projects combating disinformation, which includes Kathryn’s role as a commissioner, along with Prince Harry, for the Aspen Institute’s new Commission on Information Disorder.
What can we predict about Season 4 of Succession based on the Roy family’s closest alter egos?
If art continues to imitate some semblance of Murdochian life, then GoJo swallows most of Royco Waystar and quickly downsizes what’s left while leaving the conservative cable network ATN and some smaller companies for Logan to control. Who will stay with “the stub” of the Roy empire? Gerri is likely obligated to stick out the transition, while Tom probably has few choices but to stick around for his “loyalty” pay off and see his star rise … though a divorce from Shiv is surely on the horizon. Cousin Greg, with no soul left and no inheritance to hope for, will have to bank on marrying that countess…or go all in on the offer to be Tom’s bitch-in-perpetuity. But as we’ve seen, Greg has learned some tricks, and he will surely play his cards to hold Tom to his promise of getting lots of deputy Gregs at his own disposal.
As for Kendall and Shiv, if they follow the model of James and Liz, they’ll use their shares of the significant windfall from the company’s sale to strike out on their own. But in the Succession version, they’d surely set up rival upstarts to challenge their father’s remaining empire — as well as GoJo’s.
What becomes of Roman? He’s alienated his father – and vice versa — but he did bond with GoJo’s CEO, and he could become a kind of Peter Rice of the new combined empire, able to score a long-term top job in the brave new GoJo world. Will he lure Gerri over the line, the corporate one or those other ones he keeps trying to cross? Will he use Kendall’s big confession against him? Could he help GoJo acquire his siblings’ rival upstarts, as Rupert acquired Liz’s Shine? How to keep the showdowns and invective coming??
There were hints that Logan was priming his “seed” to bring forth even more warring offspring with his much younger assistant, a storyline reminiscent of what happened when Rupert married his young Fox staffer, Wendy Deng, with whom he has two daughters. Maybe Season 4 will catapult us several years into the future, so we can watch as Logan grooms his next generation of young gladiators to enter the arena.
It will be a bit of a wait, no matter what. To tide you over, check out these Watercooler’s picks for shows about the dramas and dysfunctions of top 1 percenters.