In the four seasons of the award-winning HBO drama, Succession, the sons and daughter of billionaire media mogul Logan Roy fight like children in a sandbox for their father’s favor—and the nod to succeed him in controlling the family business. Now, in a brilliant new book by two Pulitzer-winning journalists, we have the story of Succession in real life. It’s a tale worthy of Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks—but far more complex than either could possibly write. Because, in Unscripted, Rachel Abrams and James B. Stewart relate this unsavory story in excruciating detail. And it couldn’t be truly told otherwise.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Two stories in one
In one sense, Unscripted is a strange book. It’s really two stories rolled into one. It is, of course, the real life version of Succession—the protracted, knock-down battle within and around the Redstone family for control of CBS and Viacom and the multi-billion-dollar fortune it had built. But it’s also an account of the no-holds-barred conflict within CBS and Viacom that played out once the family’s pecking order was resolved. It works nonetheless. Brilliantly, in fact. Because the two stories are intertwined in multiple ways. But either could well have justified the price of the book.
Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy by Rachel Abrams and James B. Stewart (2023) 416 pages ★★★★★
All the drama of reality TV behind the scenes
The book’s title, Unscripted, is a term of art in the media industry. It refers to what the public calls reality TV. And this book, like few other true-to-life family stories, offers drama on a level that can be matched only by a handful of over-the-top reality TV series. It’s far too complicated to summarize in a few sentences, but a glance at the key players conveys a hint of what’s in store for readers.
There’s Sumner Redstone (1923-2020) himself, the nasty and irascible old man who inherited a small chain of movie theaters and built it into a media empire that included CBS and the entertainment conglomerate Viacom. Logan Roy in real life, indeed.
For years, Redstone’s daughter, Shari Redstone (1954-), was his presumptive heir. Then the old man turned instead to the sycophantic CEO of Viacom, Philippe Dauman (1954-). That worked until 2016, when Redstone dumped him in favor of Shari.
But there was a lot more going on
Meanwhile, Dauman and CBS Chairman Les Moonves (1949-) vied for advantage over each other and over Shari to gain favor with Redstone. But Sumner valued loyalty more than results. So it didn’t matter that Moonves was minting money at CBS while Viacom’s stock was diving to new lows. Later, as the world knows, Moonves’ long history as a sexual predator caught up with him, and he was forced to resign in 2018.
And all the while this corporate drama was unfolding, Sumner Redstone was entertaining a long, long list of beautiful young women to satisfy his prodigious sexual appetite—and showering them with gifts of cash and real estate that each sometimes ran to $10 million or more.
In the course of all that coming and going, two women gained special favor with him and took over his finances and his life. They managed to shut out the family—with the sole exception of one of Sumner’s grandchildren, who colluded with them. The pair bilked the old man to the tune of $150 million. Then one of the two succumbed to an attraction to a handsome ex-con, and when Sumner caught wind of it he banished her from his home and his life.
And that’s just the gist of it. There’s so much more.
About the authors
According to her page on the New York Times website, “Rachel Abrams is a senior producer and reporter for “The New York Times Presents,” The Times’s award-winning television documentary series for Hulu and FX. In 2022, she was part of the team that won an Emmy for ‘Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,’ and in 2018, she was part of the reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for exposing sexual harassment and misconduct by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful figures. Ms. Abrams is originally from Los Angeles and graduated in 2009 from New York University, where she majored in history. She covered the film industry for Variety before joining The Times in 2013.”
James B. Stewart is an American lawyer, journalist, and author of nine books. Born in Illinois in 1952, he is a graduate of DePauw University and Harvard Law School. Since 1911, he has been a columnist for the New York Times after many years practicing law and working for the Wall Street Journal, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism. He has also worked as a magazine editor and helped found SmartMoney. He is currently a contributor to the New Yorker.
For related reading
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- My 10 favorite books about business history
- 10 great biographies
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