Sometimes, the sons also set

Next-generation exex, like the Murdochs, face unique difficulties

Is News Corp. still on the family plan?

Several years ago, Lachlan Murdoch strode the floor at the NATPE convention like he owned the place, which at the time he sort of did. Rupert Murdoch’s son was News Corp.’s deputy chief operating officer with specific oversight of Fox’s TV stations. And at NATPE, such groups represent a distributor’s lifeblood.

In 2005, however, the younger Murdoch vacated that position and his father’s company — proving that when it comes to Hollywood, while the son often rises, the son can set as well.

Nepotism can be a thorny subject in a field as subjective as media, though with the possible exception of the late Aaron Spelling, few have advanced their progeny as brazenly as Murdoch, who has made no secret of his determination to pass the reins to one of his children.

Asked about News Corp.’s future at a Hollywood Radio and Television Society lunch in 2002, then-chief operating officer Peter Chernin quipped, “A lot of Murdochs,” before adding, “and that was said with a lot of respect and admiration.”

Getting ahead by virtue of membership in the lucky sperm club doesn’t always seem admirable. On closer inspection, life isn’t necessarily easy for these progeny, be they Murdochs or Redstones.

Watching Murdoch’s youngest son and until recently presumed heir apparent, James, weather questioning from the British Parliament — often jumping in to fill lapses in his dad’s memory or knowledge of the U.K. operation — brought to mind the unique difficulties Hollywood’s next-gen contingent can face.

Yes, in a business where connections are so hard to forge, being born with a foot inside the door is an enormous advantage. Calls get returned that otherwise wouldn’t be.

Growing up in proximity to Hollywood also provides insight into a process that can befuddle outsiders. In then-ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses’ infamous 1997 New York Times profile, writer Lynn Hirschberg described her subject’s education as writer-producer Jay Tarses’ daughter thusly: “Sitting at the dinner table … Jamie would dissect her father’s scripts and critique his jokes. She learned the television business through osmosis.”

Clearly, some learn better than others. Yet in the early stages of their careers, there’s invariably skepticism about these privileged kids and whether they possess the smarts, or the hunger, to succeed in a cutthroat environment.

While not as fractious as Viacom’s Sumner Redstone — who has feuded with daughter Shari, a Viacom board member, and been sued by son, Brent — the intrigue surrounding Murdoch’s children has been especially interesting even before James’ uncomfortable turn in the spotlight, with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd lambasting him for “ingratiating over-articulateness” that scarcely concealed “the arrogant entitlement.”

See? When you’re the royal heir, even being articulate can become a negative.

Once dubbed “first among equals” by his father, Lachlan’s departure came as a surprise. At the time, sources attributed the split to various factors, including a revision of the family trust and his father excluding him from key decisions while consulting trusted lieutenants, like Fox News Channel CEO Roger Ailes.

Daughter Elisabeth also struck out on her own, after famously suggesting that her father buy a British format that became “American Idol.” She returned to the fold in February when News Corp. agreed to pay $675 million to acquire her company, Shine Group, which triggered a shareholder lawsuit accusing the company of nepotism.

“In addition to larding the executive ranks of the company with his offspring, Murdoch constantly engages in transactions designed to benefit family members,” the complaint stated, charging the mogul with treating his company “like a wholly owned family candy store.”

Nepotism is generally viewed as a pejorative, which doesn’t take into account those with well-situated parents — Rob Reiner, J.J. Abrams and Richard Zanuck come to mind — who have enjoyed considerable success. Whatever doors were opened, the accomplishments stand on their own.

In Hollywood, the more prevalent image is someone like Tori Spelling, who became a poster child for family cronyism, although her father always vigorously defended her talent.

What starts as a leg up, in other words, can quickly come to feel like the weight of the world — or in James Murdoch’s case, the News of the World — on one’s shoulders.

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