Brow Beat

Which of the World’s Great Media Clans Is the Model for Succession’s Pierces?

Holly Hunter and Cherry Jones on Succession.
Cherry Jones (right) plays Nan Pierce, the head of Succession’s WASPy media clan.
Peter Kramer/HBO

“Tern Haven,” the fifth episode of Succession’s second season, gives us our first full view of the Pierce family, led by the indomitable Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones). So if the Roys are the Murdochs, with a bit of Redstone and Dolan and Trump thrown in, then who are the Pierces?

The first and most obvious answer is that they are the Bancrofts—the family that sold Dow Jones to Rupert Murdoch for $5 billion in 2007. Logan Roy follows the Murdoch playbook almost to the letter, offering far more than the business is worth and promising editorial independence for the acquired properties. (Murdoch then immediately broke that promise, just as Logan implied that he could easily do in his first meeting with Pierce CEO Rhea Jarrell.)

The Bancrofts are far from the only storied media clan in America, however. There are the Chandlers, who owned the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune; the Taylors, who owned the Boston Globe; even the Sulzbergers, who own the New York Times. (The Pierces do seem far too WASPy to be modeled on the Sulzbergers.) What’s more, there’s a big difference between the Pierces and the Bancrofts: The Pierces are proud Democrats, while the Bancrofts were the family ultimately responsible for the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Nan Pierce also has more than a hint of Kay Graham to her—the Washington Post publisher who was idolized in Steven Spielberg’s The Post.* There’s the old-money privilege, the noblesse oblige, and the clarity with which she, rather than the CEO, makes all the key decisions. (Holly Hunter’s Rhea, by contrast, seems modeled lightly on Marjorie Scardino, the former CEO of Pearson, the publisher of the Financial Times.)

The biggest difference between the Pierces and all American newspaper clans is that the Pierces own a successful television station, which is modeled on CNN. That’s why they’re selling for $25 billion rather than $5 billion. In that sense, the closest mogul to Nan Pierce is probably Ted Turner, who founded CNN and then sold it to Time Warner in 1996, in a move he has said was the worst day of his life.

The story of Turner Broadcasting, however, is ultimately the same as the story of Dow Jones, and even the story of Pierce Group. Which is that everybody has a price. Once Nan Pierce agreed in principle to sell her company for $25 billion, she was already mentally spending all that money. Once you have 25 billion mental dollars, it’s very hard to lose them.

Each week, Felix Salmon and Slate Money host a spoiler-filled discussion of the latest episode of Succession. Subscribe to Slate Money or listen to this week’s episode below.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2019: This post originally misidentified Spielberg’s film The Post as The Paper.