If you seek a quick synopsis of "Succession," the HBO prestige drama that just opened its fourth season, recall everything you’ve ever heard remember about tycoon Rupert Murdoch, his media conglomerate and his three adult children who have vied over the years to succeed him. Then, pour a habanero cocktail of familial back-stabbing, attempted patricide, drug dependence, sexual malfunction, craven ambition, more craven ambition, infidelity, wanton consumption, and if you have any spare craven ambition, more of that, over the clan. Having fixed the tableau, complete the vision by understanding that nearly every major character behaves like a Richard III clone, minus the limp. The series is such a chorus of detestables that it makes the real-life Murdoch family seem like the Brady bunch in comparison.
It’s great TV! But there are also real lessons for those fascinated by, or foolishly employed in, the media business, an industry that’s currently on the bust part of the boom-and-bust cycle.
For those who haven’t watched yet, the usual spoiler warning applies. The season opener finds the detestable "Succession" Kids — Shiv, Roman and Kendall Roy — canvassing investors for start-up cash for their new media outlet, The Hundred, now that their season three coup attempt against their father Logan has failed and he has cast them out of the family business, Waystar Royco. The Hundred pitch deck presents it as an amalgam of Substack and Masterclass plus the Economist and the New Yorker with the 100 top writers and thinkers as contributors. Hey! Did the writers’ room forget to include Ben Smith and Justin Smith’s much-hyped Semafor in the formula? Next time the Smiths should pay for product placement.
The "Succession" Kids lose interest in The Hundred the second they learn that papa Logan is bidding for Pierce Global Media, a conglomerate he tried and failed to buy in season two. After much swearing and bidding, the Kids outbid Logan for Pierce, paying $10 billion.
Which was a better business move for the Kids, The Hundred or Pierce? Should Logan have gone higher?
If The Hundred were a loaf of bread and not a media start-up, you’d quickly find it going for 75 percent off at a bakery outlet. Listen to The Hundred's worn-out pitch:
“The world’s leading experts provide humanity’s most invaluable knowledge in bespoke, bite-sized parcels, designed to improve the lives of subscribers and the world in general. The antidote to the modern malaise of empty-caloried input-overload.”
"Succession" writers are deliberately sending up the new media genre here, all but asking their viewers, “Can’t you just smell the mold?” The web abounds with bite-sized parcels, news digests, New York Times breaking news alerts on phones, self-help media, TikTok and other mini-diversions. It’s hard to imagine the "Succession" Kids putting their own trust funds into The Hundred, let alone convincing the investors they’ve summoned to pony up for the “disrupter news brand.” There’s no evidence they understand the new media property they’re conjuring into existence. Do they read any of the publications their pitch name-checks? Do they read anything? Can they read? They talk about finding subscribers, which appears to be essential for modern media plays, but discuss no reason why anybody would pay for their projection.
The Hundred proposal also echoes the tale of The Daily, a 2011 iPad-centric start-up that Murdoch personally shepherded into existence before it collapsed almost two years later due to lack of reader interest. “New times demand new journalism,” Murdoch said at the launch of his “visionary” property, which he said was for modern news consumers who expect “content tailored to their specific interests to be available anytime, anywhere.” Its initial investment was about $30 million, reported the New York Times, and the weekly cost of production was $500,000.
But what of Pierce Global Media? A couple of seasons ago, Logan who has a decade-long lust to buy Pierce, was willing to part with $25 billion for it. (Pierce is owned by a family that resembles the Bancrofts, who sold Dow Jones of the Wall Street Journal fame to Murdoch for $5.7 billion.) After Logan offers $6 billion for Pierce he gets topped by the Kids who have flown to matriarch Nan Pierce’s vineland home to “check out” a deal with her and end up chasing their own tails to a $10 billion offer.
The offer makes no business sense. If Pierce has lost this much hypothetical value in just a couple of seasons, it’s on a downward trajectory. Why get trapped in a bidding war? In earlier cross-talk, Roman tells Shiv she wants to buy Pierce to retaliate against her husband Tom, who double-crossed her in the season three finale, and tells Kendall he wants to retaliate against Logan who has ground him down for his entire life. They deny it, but it’s true. Roman, who should know better, goes along with them anyway, and the bid mushrooms to $10 billion to seal the deal. The Kids are as stupid as Logan makes them out to be. Buying Pierce, even at an inflated price, makes sense for Logan because it would leave him in control of a conservative cable channel, ATN, and the lefty Pierce broadcast properties. He would also accrue more political influence. The Kids, on the other hand, don’t seem to know much about running media properties, and owning one will only put them in competition with the old man, who does.
The episode leaves it unsaid, but perhaps allowing his offspring to win the bidding war at a ridiculous price might be the most injurious thing Logan has ever done to them. In real life, Murdoch grossly overpaid for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal when he threw down $5 billion for it. A little over a year later, his company took a large write-down, $3 billion of which reflected the declining value of his newspaper operation, which included Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. Murdoch, like Logan Roy, controls such an immense operation he can afford such a localized financial calamity. But can the Kids?
We can surmise where all this is going. First, the Kids did the right thing for the wrong reason by abandoning The Hundred for a run on Pierce. Then they did the wrong thing for the wrong reason by overbidding for a big company. Surely, they will discover that they overpaid and try to extricate themselves from the deal. The Pierces will demand — and receive — an enormous fee from the Kids for breaking the deal, and the Kids will pay through the snout. Then Logan will pounce at a more reasonable price, and taking possession of Pierce Global Media will allow him to expand his empire, out-duel the Pierce family at last, and punish his treacherous Kids.
"Succession" is no more a documentary about the Murdoch family, new media and the television business than Shakespeare’s plays are faithful histories of London, Venice, Rome and Verona. "Succession’s" writers rightly mock the likely success of new media startups in the episode, mockery that was rewarded this week as Grid, a worthy startup from early 2022 with a $10 million bankroll, shut down Monday after being acquired by the Messenger, yet another soon-to-launch site.
The media game has always been a gamble for its best players, like Rupert Murdoch and Logan Roy, as well as its suckers, like the Kids, who can’t even figure out what game they want to play. Legacy media might not be the blue chip that "Succession" seems to imply it is — the sector lost $500 billion in market cap last year. But if the episode convinced just one investor not to start a Substack meets Masterclass meets the Economist meets the New Yorker this year, it will have done its job.
Sarah Ellison wrote a good book about the Murdoch purchase of the Wall Street Journal: War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire. Send Logan Roy insights to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed reads the Wall Street Journal. My Mastodon and Post accounts can’t decide whether Elon Musk is destroying Twitter or saving it. My RSS feed had a nightmare the other night that it was a Semaform.