'Succession' puts fictional spin on Murdoch-like media dynasties

Comcast crashes Murdoch's Sky bid
Comcast crashes Murdoch's Sky bid

In 2010, Jesse Armstrong's script "Murdoch" -- about an imagined dinner between Twenty-First Century Fox (FOX) chief Rupert Murdoch and his grown children, jockeying over the company's future -- made the Black List, a compendium of Hollywood's best unproduced screenplays.

Armstrong is back with "Succession," a new HBO series about the skirmish for control of the world's fifth-largest media conglomerate, presided over by an imperious mogul and his kids. But those associated with the show are shying away from saying it's a fictionalized version of the Murdoch dynasty, citing rather a laundry list of family-run media enterprises, both now and in the past.

Current events have certainly done their part to help promote the drama, which stars Brian Cox as Logan Roy, billed as a media titan and "pal of prime ministers," as well as Jeremy Strong as his son and presumptive heir. Like Murdoch, Roy has three children (two boys and a girl) from his second marriage and an older child, not in the business, from his first.

Known primarily as a satirist, the British-born Armstrong said he never feared any "You'll never work in this town again"-type repercussions from the Murdoch script. On "Succession," his collaborators include director Adam McKay, who has experience bringing high-finance machinations to the screen in the movie "The Big Short;" and journalist Frank Rich, an executive producer on HBO's "Veep," who helped shepherd along the project.

While acknowledging that the premise is "certainly informed by my knowledge of the Murdoch family," Armstrong insisted the screenplay isn't intended to be a Roman a clef -- real people presented under fictitious names -- but rather an amalgam of stories.

Related: Lachlan Murdoch, not James, will lead new Fox company

Armstrong cites Viacom's Sumner Redstone -- whose company has passed to daughter Shari -- the book "Disney War" (about the struggle over that company) and the Murdoch-Robert Maxwell tabloid rivalry of the 1980s among a diverse array of influences, along with family-run enterprises like Comcast and the Sinclair broadcast group.

"It's touching that people only think there's one of these around," Armstrong said. "Dynastic families are all around us."

This has been a boom time for corporate succession tales, with Murdoch's planned sale of most Fox entertainment assets to Disney (DIS); Shari Redstone and Leslie Moonves' pitched and public battle over CBS (CBS) and Viacom (VIA); and AT&T's pending acquisition of Time Warner (TWX).

Speaking of Time Warner, the company -- which owns HBO and CNN -- was the subject of a takeover bid by Murdoch in 2014.

Referring to recent headlines, Armstrong said, "When you're doing a show like this, you're always thinking, 'S—t, we just missed our moment.'"

Rich allowed that the show possesses "a certain kind of similarity to those billionaire families," but added that whatever parallels media-savvy viewers see in "Succession," the series will "rise and fall on the basis that people are drawn into these characters."

According to the producers, HBO gave the creative team "complete freedom," with nary a note about its mostly unflattering depiction of this modern-day media baron and his progeny, who -- much like the characters in Showtime's "Billions" -- reside within a world of wealth and privilege, wielding sharp elbows at those who dare cross them.

As with "Veep" and comics like Bill Maher and John Oliver, Rich said, the premium channel is willing to "take on the powers that be."

"Succession" premieres June 3 on HBO.

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