The Media Today

What Succession said about the media business

FILE - Sarah Snook, from left, Alan Ruck, Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong and Kieran Culkin attend the premiere of HBO's "Succession" season four at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 20, 2023, in New York. Warner Bros. Discovery unveiled a streaming service Wednesday, April 12, combining HBO programming with a mix of unscripted TV series in a push to reap more subscribers from what so far has been a muddled media merger. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

This weekend, Succession—an HBO comedy-drama about the dysfunctional family that runs a media and entertainment conglomerate—will end with the conclusion of its fourth season, avoiding the later-years decline of so many American TV shows by quitting while it’s ahead. In addition to its sharp explorations of universal human themes, Succession has held a particular resonance for many of those who work in (or observe) the media business, not least because the family that it follows—principally, the patriarch, Logan Roy, and his children, Kendall, Shiv, Roman, and Connor—bear some uncanny resemblances to the Murdoch clan. (Rupert Murdoch has denied ever having watched the show, but Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has reported that it lives rent-free in his head—per Sherman, when Murdoch divorced Jerry Hall, his most recent wife, the settlement barred her from suggesting ideas to the writers.)

Succession, a show about a fictional media company, has thus become a media phenomenon in the real world—the subject not only of buzzy entertainment, style, and celebrity coverage but of endless dissections of its deeper messages: about the moral rot at the heart of American power and the realism (or lack thereof) of the plot points through which this manifests itself. All this attention—not to mention the show’s avid following on media Twitter—can come across as insular and self-regarding: the latest obsession of a media elite more in touch with fictional New York City boardrooms and California retreats than the concerns and tastes of Middle America. And yet the show itself should be read as a scathing indictment of this culture and its insularity—whether or not its US media interlocutors are in on the joke. At the very least, as Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong—who, like many of the show’s writers, has the outside perspective of a Brit—told The New Yorker recently, “Hopefully, the show is against bullshit.”

As Succession comes to an end, I (also a Brit) reflected with Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and fellow viewer of Succession, on its significance both as a portrayal of the modern media industry and, in a sense, an artifact of it. Our typed conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. And beware: there are spoilers ahead. —JA

JA: Many of our readers likely haven’t seen
Succession. How would you assess its popularity and significance to people who work in the media industry?

BG: I follow a few hundred media people on Twitter. And for a few years, everyone’s Sunday night routine was to go silent while waiting for the latest scoop to drop from Ben Smith, then the media reporter at the New York Times. The problem was that you never knew when it was going to drop, or how big it was going to be, so we were all smashing the refresh button until his editor hit publish. With Succession, we don’t need to wonder about the timing. From 9 to 10pm Eastern on Sundays, media Twitter goes silent again, except for the occasional non-spoiler reference to a particularly clever line. (My favorite from last Sunday’s episode came when Shiv Roy, seeing her horrible mother, remarked, “I thought I could hear the sound of Dalmatians howling.”)

But the interesting thing about the media’s Succession obsession is that the journalism is usually incidental to the drama. Yes, there are plot lines here and there that involve something resembling a news organization, but this is not Lou Grant or Spotlight. Newsroom people are usually bit players in this drama, often serving as props while the main characters play out their tragic flaws. 

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When Succession does engage with news, it does so masterfully. The second episode of this season had some of the most evocative moments, whether it was Logan Roy entering the newsroom of the network he owns, ATN, and pulling a Rupert Murdoch by standing on paper boxes to address staff, or Logan sidling behind a petrified ATN editor and harrumphing, “One email!,” followed by his venomous advice, “Please, don’t exhaust yourself.”

You teach the business of journalism at Columbia Journalism School. (I took your class in 2016.) Does the portrayal of the media industry on Succession ring true to you?

“Food and weed—those are the only two verticals driving revenue.” That’s what Kendall Roy tells the about-to-be-fired newsroom of Vaulter, a Vice/Mic/Buzzfeed lookalike that had the misfortune of coming under the umbrella of Waystar Royco, the Roys’ media company.

And in fact, when you see what cruel fate has done in recent months to such companies as Vice and Buzzfeed, you have to admire the Succession writers’ prescience. (That Vaulter episode aired nearly four years ago.) This idea that you could ride a rocket fuel of venture-capital cash to smoosh a lot of disparate interests into a single brand—and expect the audience to sustainably grow? That was about as likely as a “pivot to video” generating genuine profits (something Roman Roy also suggested for Vaulter). 

Such episodes provoke a familiar, queasy feeling in a lot of journalists, who have heard sweet-talking recruiters gush platitudes to get them to join their Hot New Digital Thing. But as we’ve found, many of those recruiters’ bosses never really believed in the editorial model, or they never had a realistic idea of how to sustain it. And so, if you weren’t on the “food and weed” verticals, you’ll be stuck with a few weeks’ severance and an NDA, while Kendall goes upstairs to tell Dad how smoothly the layoffs went.  

Yeah, the references to efforts to make money in the media business seem very well-observed to me, if obviously exaggerated: from big-picture stuff—the beginning of this season shows the Roy children throwing around an idea for an excruciating-sounding site called The Hundred (“The world’s leading experts provide humanity’s most invaluable knowledge in bespoke, bite-sized parcels”)—to smaller references. (As I noted in this newsletter last week, a recent episode featured a reference to CFIUS, a US national-security regulator, potentially having a problem with a foreign takeover of the Roys’ business: a scenario that didn’t seem especially likely—the money in this case was Swedish, not Chinese or Russian—but was nonetheless a pretty in-the-weeds media-deals joke.) I guess people who dwell within—or, like me, write about—the elite media world feel seen by Succession in that sense. Though its observations are obviously not kind ones. I think they speak to a broader sense that so much media-business talk is faddish and shallow. The Roy children, at least, are clearly running furiously on this hamster wheel, trying to make money in a changing industry—emblematic of an old guard that doesn’t seem to understand those changes. Yet the new-ideas people who are portrayed are largely dreadful and clueless as well. It’s a satire but it rings sadly true for me. 

Keep in mind that a lot of the earth-shaking episodes involved Waystar companies that have nothing to do with the news business. That’s particularly true for the big scandal in an earlier season: a string of sexual assaults aboard the company’s cruise ships, which also included cover-ups, payoffs and destruction of evidence. For much of the show’s run, the family’s news ventures focused mostly on either ATN (which frighteningly duplicate Fox’s chyrons, platinum-blonde anchors, and propaganda-posing-as-news shows) or ventures like The Hundred, described by Kendall as “Substack-meets-Masterclass-meets-The Economist-meets-The-New Yorker.” 

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that we saw how democracy-destructive it is to have the Murdochs—I mean, the Roys—running the nation’s largest cable news channel…

…Yes, journalism was front and center in a recent episode in which ATN is depicted as throwing a tight election—or at least narrative momentum—to a far-right presidential candidate by calling Wisconsin in his favor even though arsonists destroyed likely liberal ballots in a fire. What was your reaction to that episode? A lot of US media types found that that, too, rang uncomfortably true—though I’ve also seen analysis suggesting that the scenario was a bit far-fetched, and that news networks don’t have the sort of power depicted there.

Not gonna lie. That episode brought back tremors. Starting with the pre-results narrative about Daniel Jiménez, the Democratic candidate, in the lead, then watching the margin dwindle, then watching an acceptance speech from an authoritarian-leaning demagogue with no core governing principles other than the aggregation of power. The only thing it lacked was the New York Times’s needle. 

I’ve rewatched that episode, and it feels like one of those TV movies that begins with the voiceover, “Inspired by true events.” It didn’t so much reflect reality as push it through a prism, bending and shaping events to appear tangentially different from what we actually experienced. If the filings from the recent defamation case between Dominion and Fox News showed us anything, it’s that the Murdochs actually didn’t overrule Fox’s analytics team on the network’s early Arizona call for Joe Biden in 2020, even as they came under a lot of pressure from the Trump team and some of their own employees to do so—and even as they saw their audience flee to fringier networks like One America News and Newsmax. 

Posing a question to you: What’s the most relatable thing about the news business that you saw in Succession? Or, if you were a journalism professor, which episode would you show your students? And what would you want them to take away from it? 

Well, I guess it would depend on what aspect of journalism I was teaching. If it was anything remotely related to journalism ethics, I’d show them the election episode and say: Just don’t do this. But—without wishing to evade your question—I think you have to watch the whole show really, because it’s a study in character and atmosphere, more so than in plot. I’ve seen critics say that the show’s deal-making plots can feel repetitive, but I see that as the point: it creates the hamster-wheel effect that I noted above. The details may change, but fundamentally the characters are trying to use money and power to fill voids within themselves—consequences for the masses be damned. And it’s that underlying, persistent nihilism, for want of a better word, that makes the show so watchable for me. If the satire of profit-driven media resonates, it comes across in the longer-term unspooling of that dynamic. 

I think Succession is similar in that respect to The Thick of It—a British political comedy on which Jesse Armstrong worked as a writer. (Sadly it’s not as well known in the US, but it did directly inspire Veep; both shows were created by Armando Iannucci.) The Thick of It is perhaps best known for its inventively caustic dialogue, which absolutely echoes in Succession. But it’s also a broader satire of a broken system—in this case, the corridors of Westminster—in which almost every character, on every side, is dreadful and morally bankrupt. I think Succession has imported that very British sensibility into mainstream American TV, where you don’t see it so often—where traditionally, you’re supposed to empathize with at least some of the characters, and the arc is supposed to bend toward redemption. Which is why it drives me a bit crazy seeing American viewers, including some journalists, obsessing this season over who will—or should—win at the end of Succession. That’s not the point! It’s a portrayal of a media system in which we all lose because the worst people have it locked up among themselves, whichever way their petty squabbles break! Alan Ruck, who plays Connor Roy in the show, put it best when he was asked by Vanity Fair recently who should succeed Logan Roy as head of his family business—he almost laughed and said, “No one! They are awful. That’s the truth.”

But Bill, you’re American—who do you think will win? 

I expect the four Roy children to experience a sudden, simultaneous epiphany and turn Waystar into a 501(c)(3), expiating their guilt by redistributing their wealth to nonprofit news organizations that provide unbiased local journalism in communities around the world! 

Amen to that.

Other notable stories:

  • Perry Bacon, Jr., a columnist at the Washington Post, listed seven outlets that he sees as reimagining political journalism by addressing its “long-standing shortcomings: insufficient coverage of state and local government and of people who aren’t White and upper-income; an over-prioritization of elections over policy; a failure to recognize that the courts are a central front in today’s political conflicts.” Bacon praises the American Prospect, Balls and Strikes, Bolts, the US edition of The Guardian, Popular Information, States Newsroom, and Hammer & Hope (which Feven Merid recently profiled for CJR).
  • Also for the Post, Paul Farhi assesses the “looming existential crisis” facing cable news. As recently as 2016, “just over 70 percent of all households with a TV had cable or satellite TV subscriptions. Today the figure is just under 40 percent, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, a research firm. And it’s dropping fast,” Farhi reports. “The day could soon come when an exodus of cable subscribers leaves cable operators unable to afford the hefty license fees that… news programmers now command.”
  • Two years ago, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko courted international condemnation when he grounded a commercial flight and abducted Roman Protasevich, an anti-government journalist and activist, and his (now former) partner, Sofia Sapega. Now, however, Lukashenko has pardoned Protasevich, who has been accused of selling out both Sapega and his former political allies. Andrew Higgins has more for the Times.
  • The Media Development Foundation, a group based in Ukraine, is out with a new report assessing the state of local news in the country more than a year after Russia’s full-scale invasion. The report found, among other things, that while local outlets have struggled with “war-related fatigue” and with staffing and financial pressures, “heightened global interest” in Ukraine has presented “a window of opportunity for local media.”
  • And a court in Russia prolonged the pretrial detention of Evan Gershkovich—the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested on espionage charges that have widely been decried as bogus—by three months. Gershkovich’s parents, who live in the US, were present at the courthouse yesterday and were able to see, though not speak to, their son. “I don’t know how to describe this happiness and this sadness at the same time,” his mother said.

ICYMI: The view from the top

Jon Allsop and Bill Grueskin are the authors of this article. Jon Allsop writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School.