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Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy by James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams

Published in February 2023

One reason I read Unscripted is that I love watching HBO’s Succession. While Succession is not based on any single family—and if it was, the Murdochs would be the prime inspiration—there is something of the Redstones in the show. The other reason I read Unscripted is that the world of Sumner Redstone, Viacom, CBS and Leslie Moonves is one I know little about.

If you want to decide whether Unscripted is worth your time, I recommend Adam Davidson’s excellent New York Times review. I fully agree with Davidson’s conclusion that the book’s main lesson is that “Wealth and power can metastasize until they become toxic, destroying families, companies and countless lives.”

I’m interested in thinking through what the stories that Stewart and Abrams tell in Unscripted might tell us about where higher education is going. While the world of TV networks and movie studios is totally different and completely separate from the one we occupy at our colleges and universities, it is also true that there is a never-ending push for institutions of higher learning to behave more like exemplars of business.

How often do we hear that if only universities could act with the efficiency and agility of a business, the woes of spiraling tuition costs and stubbornly low graduation rates would be cured?

While for-profit universities have lost most of their market share and relevance over the past decade, nonprofit institutions are increasingly tied in with for-profit companies. The growth of online education has been accompanied by the rise of online program management and online education platform companies.

Universities may be in a different universe than that depicted in Unscripted (and Succession), but we increasingly share the stage with our corporate friends.

So what can we learn from Unscripted?

The book tells two separate but related stories. The first is the long decline and family dysfunction of Sumner Redstone (1923–2020). For those who don't know anything about Redstone (I didn’t), he was the majority shareholder (through a hostile takeover in 1987) of Viacom, Paramount (1994) and CBS (2000).

Unscripted is not really about the corporate history of Redstone’s companies. The book covers the mogul’s last two decades of life, years in which he lived with two younger women (simultaneously) who drained his bank accounts and attempted to displace the inheritance of his biological children. The second part of Unscripted covers the fall of Leslie Moonves, head of CBS, when his decades of sexual harassment came to light in 2018.

My big takeaway after reading Unscripted is that I’m grateful to have chosen a life in academia, as opposed to some other imaginary career path that might have led me to a TV network or a movie studio.

We might have our problems in higher ed, but the level of obsequiousness displayed by the underlings of Redstone and Moonves is breathtaking. The university caste system may be alive and well. Still, if Unscripted is anything to go on, even the untenured among us speak our minds more than the nonbosses of corporate America.

If you work at a university, most of your working day will be spent doing things related to your institution’s operations. The characters that fill the stories of Unscripted seem never to be doing much work managing the companies they are supposed to be running. Most of their time seems spent on intrigue, corporate politics and protecting their place in the hierarchy.

Perhaps the entertainment industry is not the model we should adopt for our mental image of companies’ operations. Likely, ed-tech companies are as far away from Viacom, CBS and Paramount as today’s universities are separated from our ninth-century origins (the University of Al-Karaouine, established in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco).

What Unscripted (and again Succession) might teach for-profit companies can be as profoundly dysfunctional as any university (or, if you are watching Lucky Hank, English departments). We should be cautious about the company models we might choose to emulate. And that maybe our choices to try to make our way in academia, as opposed to climbing the ranks of Hollywood, weren’t so ill considered after all.

What are you reading?

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