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Greed. Betrayal. Family backstabbing. The rise of the Murdochs, the world’s most powerful media family, which was chronicled in a three-part, 20,000-word investigation published in The New York Times Magazine in 2019, had all the right ingredients for a gripping documentary series. Some might say it had “Succession”-level drama.
The drama was brought indeed in “The Murdochs: Empire of Influence,” a new documentary series that premiered on CNN+ last month and will be broadcast on CNN later this year.
The series relied on the reporting of the two journalists behind the magazine article, Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg, who served as consulting producers. For more insight, the team at the production company Left/Right, which partnered with CNN and The New York Times, used new voices and archival footage to expand on the magazine article across six hourlong episodes. The team even enlisted Mr. Mahler and Mr. Rutenberg to appear on camera.
“It can be easy to go off track or speak a little loosely in ways that we wouldn’t in an actual written and edited piece,” said Mr. Rutenberg. “So a lot of the challenge is getting used to sticking to our reporting when we’re sitting in a chair riffing.”
Work on the series began in the fall of 2020,said Kathleen Lingo, The Times’s editorial director for film and TV and an executive producer on the project. “It was an opportunity not just to retell the story as it appeared in the magazine, but to expand the timeline into additional events,” she said. “You really get to see how the Murdoch family’s presence in world events played out over so many decades.”
Mr. Mahler and Mr. Rutenberg met weekly with the showrunner of the series, Erica Sashin, and a team from Left/Right to work on the script. They took an expanded look at the formative years of the family patriarch and founder of News Corp, Rupert Murdoch, in Toorak, a neighborhood of Melbourne, Australia. The show also grew to include developments since the magazine investigation was published, such as the 2021 Capitol riot and how Fox News, which Mr. Murdoch founded and is now run by his son Lachlan, covered the events that day.
The television editing process took some getting used to, Mr. Rutenberg said.
“It’s much harder to go in and tinker,” he said. “If we wanted to edit anything, we had to get in touch with their editors, who’d have to rearrange the timing of the whole episode.”
But there were aspects the two men relished about the documentary format.
“With a documentary, you can be a little more expansive,” Mr. Mahler said. “We hadn’t had room to get into things in the magazine series that were just a little too tangential, like the strike at Rupert’s plant in Wapping,” he added, citing a workers’ dispute in London, “or the story of the daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch,” Those are topics that they are able to explore in the series.
The TV format also lent the opportunity to transport viewers to important scenes in the Murdoch family history via archival images and video footage.
“In the section when Rupert first moves his family to New York, you’re able to see that era of New York City’s skyline and the streets while you’re also learning about his personal goals,” Ms. Lingo said. “I love how a documentary can transport you to a specific era or time in a visceral way while also giving you information.”
When Mr. Mahler and Mr. Rutenberg began to work on the documentary, it had been a few months since they were knee-deep in the nuances of the investigation. But fortunately, Mr. Mahler said, the fact that they had written the article collaboratively meant they had kept more organized notes than they otherwise might have.
Both men watched the documentary about half a dozen times each during the editing process. Their takeaway?
“It’s better than ‘Succession,’” Mr. Mahler said of the HBO drama whose Roy family is said to have been inspired by the Murdochs.
Mr. Rutenberg wouldn’t go quite that far, but he was certain of one thing: “You can’t watch this and not think ‘Succession’ is overwhelmingly based on the Murdoch family,” he said.
Stream “The Murdochs: Empire of Influence” on CNN+.