Why reading Unscripted will make you happy you chose science

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

Released February 2023

One reason I read Unscripted is because I enjoy watching HBO’s Succession. While Succession isn’t based on a single family — and if it were, the Murdochs would be the main inspiration — there’s something of the Redstones in the show. The other reason I read Unscripted is because I know little about the world of Sumner Redstone, Viacom, CBS, and Leslie Moonves.

If you’re trying to decide if Unscripted is worth your time, I recommend Adam Davidson’s excellent review in The New York Times. I wholeheartedly agree with Davidson’s conclusion that the book’s main lesson is that “wealth and power can metastasize to the point of becoming toxic, destroying families, businesses, and countless lives.”

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I’m interested in thinking about what the stories told by Stewart and Abrams in Unscripted might tell us about where higher education is going. While the world of television networks and film studios is vastly different and entirely separate from the one we occupy in our colleges and universities, it is also true that there is never-ending pressure for colleges to behave more like business models.

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

While for-profit universities have lost most of their market share and importance over the past decade, non-profit organizations are increasingly associated with for-profit corporations. The growth of online education has been accompanied by the rise of online program management companies and online education platforms.

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Universities may be in a different universe than Unscripted (and Succession), but we’re increasingly sharing 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 about Redstone (I didn’t), he was the majority shareholder (through a hostile takeover in 1987) of Viacom, Paramount (1994), and CBS (2000).

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

My big takeaway from reading Unscripted is that I’m grateful that I chose a life in science as opposed to some other imaginary career path that might have taken me to a TV station or a film studio.

We may have our issues in high school, but the level of subservience displayed by Redstone and Moonves’ subordinates is breathtaking. The university caste system may be alive and well. Still, when it comes to Unscripted, even the unsecured among us speak our minds more than the non-bosses of American corporations.

When you work at a university, you spend most of your working day on things related to the running of your institution. The characters who fill Unscripted’s stories never seem to put in much work to manage the businesses they’re meant to run. They seem to spend most of their time in intrigue, corporate politics and protecting their place in the hierarchy.

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Perhaps the entertainment industry is not the model we should adopt for our mental picture of how companies do business. Ed-tech companies are probably as far removed from Viacom, CBS and Paramount as today’s universities are separated from our 9th-century origins (the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco). .

What Unscripted (and Succession again) could teach for-profit corporations can be as deeply dysfunctional as any university (or, if you’re lucky Hank, English departments). We should be careful about the business models we might emulate. And that our decisions to succeed in science rather than rise in Hollywood might not have been so badly considered after all.

What are you reading?