By Janelle Davis, CNN
“Succession” drops viewers into the high-stakes world of running a media empire and all the top-secret deals, attempted coups and shocking scandals that comes with it.
The actors and creators of the award-winning series, which will compete for more statues at Monday’s Emmy Awards, insist that the characters are inspired by a long list of family-run dynastic enterprises — both past and present. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong said in one behind-the-scenes interview that the writers pulled from “famous media families like the Hearsts, to modern-day Redstone, John Malone, Robert Fitz of Comcast, Murdoch, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who founded Breitbart.”
But of all the influences, the fictional Roys, led by patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), who plays the CEO of media company and entertainment conglomerate Waystar Royco, seem to overlap most with the real-life Murdochs, the family of Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
(Major spoilers ahead from season three of “Succession.”)
A patriarchal family-run business
The premise of the series, which airs on HBO, which like CNN is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, is practically ripped from the Murdoch playbook.
Logan Roy, a ruthless dealmaker and a friend of presidents, certainly possesses a Murdoch-ian vibe.
Rupert Murdoch grew the small newspaper company that he inherited from his father in 1952 into one of the most powerful conservative media empires in history. News Corp, with a market cap of $13.50 billion, is one of the most influential companies on the planet.
He always intended to pass down his company to one of his children, but the 91-year-old has never named a successor.
Like Roy, Murdoch has several children from two marriages.
Prudence Macleod is Rupert’s oldest child from his first marriage. Prudence never showed much of an interest in running the family business, so she has largely stayed out of the succession battle that ensnares her siblings.
Rupert Murdoch’s oldest son from his second marriage is Lachlan Murdoch, who rose quickly through the ranks and became chairman and chief executive of News Ltd in 1997.
At the time, his father described Lachlan as his heir apparent, “the first among equals.” Then, in 2005 he abruptly quit after a battle with Fox News Channel CEO Roger Ailes over the direction of the cable news network — effectively taking himself off the heir apparent track. Lachlan returned to the family business in 2014.
The family also includes Rupert Murdoch’s youngest son, James Murdoch, who dropped out of Harvard in 1995 to start his own hip-hop record label.
James Murdoch joined News Corporation and was increasingly seen as the new heir apparent after Lachlan Murdoch quit in 2005. But he stepped down in 2011 after he was engulfed in a phone hacking scandal. After several years of hiatus, he rejoined the family business before ultimately resigned in 2020, citing “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions.”
Elisabeth Murdoch is the only daughter of their father’s second marriage.
“She’s very savvy, very cunning. She is perhaps the most like Rupert,” New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg says of Elisabeth in the new CNN Original Series “The Murdochs: Empire of Influence,” which premieres on CNN September 25 at 9 p.m. ET.
Rupert Murdoch has been dismissive of her attempts to take the throne, saying she needs to figure out how many children she wanted to have before planning further advancement at the company, Sky High author Mathew Horsman said in the series.
In 2000, she left the family business and founded one of the UK’s biggest independent production companies.
On “Succession,” Logan Roy has four children. Eldest Connor Roy (Alan Ruck) is mostly removed from the business and, in the most recent season, set his eyes on the presidency. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) initially sits as the ostensible heir apparent to his father, but after a series of blows, he falls from his father’s graces.
Roy family youngest, quick-witted Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), has had a hard time proving himself worthy of the top spot. Sarah Snook’s Siobhan (or Shiv), meanwhile, has the skills and her father’s favor (even when they’re at bitter odds), but has been met resistance.
The media empire and network
“Succession’s” Waystar Royco and the Murdoch’s News Corp. have more than a few points of overlap.
On “Succession,” Waystar Royco’s assets include conservative cable news network ATN, the show’s version of Fox News.
Throughout the series, Logan Roy speaks with the president and his advisers about the network’s coverage of the White House and flexes their access.
Fox News is a tool of influence for Rupert Murdoch, Jonathan Mahler, who co-wrote “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World,” says in “The Murdochs: Empire of Influence.”
“Rupert had always fantasized about having a close relationship with an American President,” says Mahler.
In Season 2 of “Succession,” news leaks that Waystar’s cruise ship division buried internal reports of sexual harassment, assault and possibly murder. The scandal forced Logan Roy and his son Kendall Roy to testify before a US senate subcommittee — another strike in Kendall’s pursuit of power.
The debacle shares similarities with the News Corp.’s hacking scandal in 2011. The company’s British newspaper, News of the World, came under scrutiny when it was discovered reporters were hacking the phones of royals, celebrities and crime victims to get their stories. Like a mirror image of the show, Rupert Murdoch, alongside his son James, testified before Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
In the fallout, James gave up his title as executive chairman of News Corp’s UK publishing unit.
“You would imagine, in a situation like this, a father’s instinct might be to protect his son, but James is really thrown under the bus by his father,” said Mahler. “It’s a humiliating and devastating period for him.”
Selling off the empire
Both Rupert and Logan pulled off a move that left people stunned: Selling off their self-made empires.
In the finale of Season 3, Logan announces his plan to sell Waystar Royco to streaming company GoJo and give tech founder Lukas Matsson control of the company.
“This is the best moment to sell. If I don’t do the best deal at any given point, what’s the point of anything? I don’t get out, I leave $5 billion on the table,” Logan told his children. “Make your own pile. This is an opportunity for you kids to get an education in real life.”
Rupert also chose to cash out in 2018, selling off most of 21st Century Fox to Disney.
“Once the Disney deal closed, Fox was left a shell of its former self. Gone was the movie studio, gone was the cable networks like FX. What was left was the Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, and Fox News — the thing that Rupert cares about more than anything,” Matthew Belloni, former editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter and founding partner of Puck News, says in the Murdoch series.
Rudenberg says this move was seen as a no-confidence vote in his children.
“By making his family the business, and the business his family, Rupert left his family just as broken up as his company was when he sold to Disney,” said Rutenberg. “It was ripped apart by this decades-long battle for succession which, at the same time, was a zero-sum seeming battle for their father’s love.”
Today, Lachlan Murdoch is the CEO of Fox Corp and his father serves as co-chairman. Both James and Elisabeth have left the family business.
The future of Logan’s children is very uncertain as the series heads into its fourth season.
A premiere date has not been announced.
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“The Murdochs: Empire of Influence,” a CNN Original Series produced in partnership with The New York Times, explores the legacy of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the intense succession battle between his children. It premieres Sunday, September 25, at 9 p.m. ET.