- “Succession” is HBO’s hit drama about a billionaire family’s battle for power at the top of a major media conglomerate.
- The show’s creators have emphasised that the show’s Roy family is fictional, but its storylines have several real-life parallels.
- Comparisons can be drawn between the Roys and the Trumps, Murdochs, and Redstones.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Succession” is HBO’s hit drama about a billionaire family’s battle for power at the top of a major media conglomerate.
The show has sparked several theories about the real-life inspirations for the powerful and complicated Roy family, including the Murdochs, the Trumps, and even the centuries-old Hearsts.
Jesse Armstrong, the creator, executive producer and showrunner has pushed back on speculation, saying that the show isn’t about one family. However, several key points of one media family’s years of succession drama appear to match the Roys’ troubles.
Here are some notable parallels between the Roys and the biggest families in media.
Several key similarities to the Roys’ power struggle storyline are found in the Redstone family’s public drama.
Sumner Redstone took over National Amusements in 1954. At the time, it was a private theatre chain company that was started by his father.
Like the Roys, the Redstones now control a media conglomerate.
Redstone acquired control of Viacom in 1987 through National Amusements and grew the company to a $US40 billion media empire that now includes the company’s holdings of MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and Paramount Pictures. National Amusements also controls the CBS television network.
The wide-ranging company that includes a diverse set of properties mirrors the scale of “Succession’s” fictional Waystar Royco, includes numerous properties of different varieties, including parks, cruises, TV stations, and digital media.
The family has had their own succession struggles that have spanned several years.
Like the Roys, the patriarch has clashed with his children, but the Redstone family sparked headlines over its internal drama that has mainly involved Sumner and his daughter Shari, who served as vice-chairwoman of the board of Viacom and CBS as well as president of National Amusements.
Redstone’s initial trusts made it clear that Shari would assume his role upon his death but in 2007, widespread reports claimed that Redstone was reconsidering his daughter’s role.
They feuded publicly over the future of the cinema chain’s leadership as the patriarch also settled a lawsuit with his estranged son Brent, who had sued for his share of the family’s fortune.
However, Shari stuck with the company as she reportedly rejected a $US1 billion buyout offer in late 2014 as she appeared to reunite with her estranged father.
The Redstones’ apparently hot-and-cold father-daughter dynamic is extremely similar to the only Roy daughter Shiv and patriarch Logan’s on-again-off-again affection and hard business conversations. After confusion among the siblings over their father’s erratic thoughts on the future of the company, Shiv emerges as the chosen child to assume leadership in the company after a private conversation in which Logan promises her a transition.
However, the two have their fair share of tension throughout the show and after Shiv’s pushing for a public announcement, Logan later balks on the offer while the company is in talks for a massive acquisition of a rival network.
Shiv and the rest of her siblings are often left reeling by their father’s switch from approachable patriarch to cold business maven. Similarly, Sumner’s cold demeanour towards his children as employees is best exemplified in a comment through a spokesperson: “I have picked those who are loyal to me and removed those who are not.”
Like patriarch Logan Roy, much of the family drama hinged on questions raised about Redstone’s age and mental capacity to run the media empire.
Sumner Redstone’s tumultuous legal and executive battles have played out like a storyline that still seems to be in the possible future for the Roy family. As the mogul aged into his 90s and reportedly lost some of his basic abilities, lawsuits broke out among his former partners, fellow board members, and even his daughter, as a future without him at the helm came more into focus.
An ongoing legal battle over Redstone’s capabilities began when his former companion, Manuela Herzer, moved to claim control of his health care decisions in 2015, reportedly claiming he had become “a living ghost.” Investors were alarmed by the characterization given by Herzer, who Redstone apparently lavished with tens of millions of dollars in gifts before she was escorted from his Los Angeles home in 2015.
In October 2016, Redstone sued Herzer and his other former girlfriend Sydney Holland in Los Angeles Superior Court, citing charges including elder financial abuse, fraud, distress, and not acting in his best interest. The suits were later settled before trial.
In February 2016, 92-year-old Redstone gave up his chairmanships of CBS and Viacom after a court-ordered examination by a geriatric psychiatrist.
By December 2018, Redstone was formally ruled incapacitated by Los Angeles County Superior Court and given a guardian to protect his legal interests.
In 2018, Shari’s profile as a power player began to rise after she filed a lawsuit on May 29, 2018, that alleged CBS inappropriately tried to strip her of control after a motion by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves.
She later found a major victory in August 2019, when the boards of CBS and Viacom announced a $US12 billion deal that would reunite the companies with Shari as chairwoman of the new entity, ViacomCBS Inc.
The fight over Sumner’s mental state reached a verdict in March 2019 that has so far gone unseen in “Succession” as the CBS Board of Directors paid $US1.25 million to settle accusations it improperly compensating an incapacitated Redstone for at least two years.
Fortune writes that responsibility for the Redstones’ drama falls squarely with Sumner, who “stubbornly refused to put his house in order – scoffing at succession plans, appointing pliant boards, and running his $US40 billion enterprise like a family grocery store.”
In season one of “Succession,” a major storyline was founder Logan Roy’s declining health and capabilities and their effect on the company. After suffering a stroke, Roy exhibited bizarre behaviour while he attempted to continue to run Waystar – he slapped his grandson, peed on the floor of his adult son’s office, and tried to grope his daughter. The incidents eventually led to a failed attempt to ouster Roy by his own son.
Logan Roy’s place as a towering figure in the family harkens back to business family patriarchs that are now media legends.
Armstrong has said that William Randolph Hearst was one of America’s earliest examples of the head of a business dynasty, and he gravitated towards the media industry because the families were “the most interesting and the most dramatic.“
Hearst was a towering figure after he founded Hearst Communications in 1887, popularising the inflammatory methods of “yellow,” or sensational journalism to ignite newspaper audiences. The battle over the tabloidization of America’s top newspapers could be seen as a precursor to the fictional Roys’ struggle with convincing the Pierces, another media family, that a merger won’t degrade their long-established editorial style.
The father of five sons, Hearst was also famously immortalised when he inspired the character of the protagonist in Orson Welles’ film “Citizen Kane,” a powerful mogul.
Despite the drama in his reputation, the business has gone through a true line of family succession, as William R. Hearst III still presides over the Hearst Corporation, which now includes more than 360 businesses of television networks, newspapers, magazines, and more.
The Trump family’s transition to political life offered Americans a real-time look at intricacies of succession, but their business interests differ from the media-centric Roy family.
After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, he passed control of the Trump Organisation to his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. His daughter Ivanka, who is widely regarded as being his favourite, was handed a senior advisory role in the White House.
Shiv’s positioning in the Roy family, being promised a chance to takeover to company after Logan, seem to mimic Ivanka’s rise to the top of her father’s business and political endeavours.
Ivanka’s husband also offers a strong parallel to Shiv’s ambitious husband, Tom.
Jared Kushner also came from a powerhouse New York City real estate family and, like Ivanka, found success in the Upper East Side of Manhattan society and was later at the top of Trump’s administration. Despite having no policy background, Kushner made a splash by getting behind several key areas early in the administration like peace in the Middle East, and would later land in controversy for accusations of nepotism influencing his security clearance.
Like Tom, Kushner has found himself at the heart of several scandals in his father-in-laws house.
A key moment in the Murdoch media dynasty likely inspired the creators of “Succession”.
Rumours surfaced after “Succession” premiered that the show was written about media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns global conglomerate News Corporation and founded the Fox Broadcasting Company, among other ventures.
Among the obvious similarities between magnate patriarch Logan Roy and Murdoch’s relationship with his middle three children, sons Lachlan and James, and daughter Elisabeth, it was pointed out that “Succession” creator Armstrong wrote and shopped a screenplay for a feature film called “Murdoch.”
“It’s an understandable question,” Armstrong said of the parallel in a panel interview about the show. “I wrote a script about the real Murdoch family a long time ago…and nothing really happened with that.”
However, a few finer points of family drama have popped up in the show. When Rupert fell while aboard a yacht in January 2018 without one of his children as a designated successor of the multibillion-dollar media empire he headed, the family was sent into a panic and the future of the company was unclear.
Though his sons James and Lachlan were already top executives at News Corp. and Fox Broadcasting, Elisabeth was another likely contender for a top spot, as she had found success with her own business ventures.
This tense state of limbo is portrayed in the “Succession” pilot episode, when Logan Roy suffers a brain hemorrhage while all three of his children are eager to discuss plans to rearrange the company’s leadership.
While Roy recovers in the hospital, his children are rooms away negotiating the best deals for themselves in regards to the company, which ultimately don’t materialise.
As America’s top business-minded families mostly keep their drama behind closed doors, those hungry for drama should stick to watching the Roys.
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