Former ABC, NBC exec emerges a winner at upfronts

With little fanfare, Jamie Tarses emerged at the end of upfront week as one of the busiest producers in primetime.

The former top ABC and NBC programming exec landed two comedies on ABC — Matthew Perry starrer “Mr. Sunshine” and couples ensemble “Happy Endings” — plus a buddy lawyer dramedy on TNT, “Franklin and Bash.” “Mad Love,” a relationship comedy she shepherded with her brother, scribe Matt Tarses, has a strong shot at a midseason order from CBS.

Tarses’ roster already included the laffer “My Boys,” heading into its fourth season on TBS in July, and Jada Pinkett Smith drama “Hawthorne,” which bows its sophomore season on TNT next month.

“She’s delivered us three good shows in a row — and there is no greater measure of a producer’s success than whether or not they make good television that gets on the air,” says Michael Wright, exec veep and head of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM. “It’s not by luck or accident that Jamie is having the success she is having.”

Most producers doing this level of business would have hired a publicist long ago, but not Tarses. She’s kept a low profile in the media since her rocky three-year tenure as ABC Entertainment prexy ended in the summer of 1999. (True to form, she declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Tarses probably got her fill of being in the headlines a decade ago. The exec was a magnet for media attention from moment she arrived at ABC in 1996. She not only became the first femme to run programming for a Big Three network, she was also one of the youngest execs (at 32) to land one of those jobs.

The breathless coverage of Tarses’ rising star actually started months before she moved to ABC. The tale has been oft-told: NBC abruptly put her on a work “hiatus” in February of 1996 after word spread that she was considering the entertainment prexy job at ABC. That job offer had been stealthily extended by a polarizing figure at the Alphabet’s new parent company, then-Disney prexy Michael Ovitz. That made for a rough start for Tarses at ABC, and it was a roller-coaster ride from there.

But today, that’s all ancient history.

Tarses has spent the past decade doing what she does best: Working with writers and other creatives to develop distinctive and highly commercial primetime fare.

“There’s no question I lean on her creatively more than anyone else in my life,” says “My Boys” creator-exec producer Betsy Thomas, who has fielded numerous projects with Tarses over the past dozen years. “She doesn’t just hear your pitch — she really does develop the idea.”

Tarses, who grew up in showbiz circles as the daughter of the respected writer-producer Jay Tarses, first made her mark at NBC in the 1990s as the creative exec who nurtured such hits as “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Wings” and “NewsRadio.” She’s known for her skill at shaping ideas and guiding scribes through the kind of revisions and re-thinks that make a good script great. Her years as a network exec make her savvy in guiding projects from first pitch through the hand-wringing over whether the pilot gets a series pickup.

“She is a true collaborator,” Thomas says. “She does editing. She’ll sit on the stage (during shooting), she gives notes, she oversees cuts — there’s nothing I wouldn’t trust Jamie to take the reins of. There are so many (producers) out there who don’t understand the basics, but Jamie understands everything inside and out. She knows as much as a showrunner does about what goes into making a TV show.”

On “Mr. Sunshine,” she helped her longtime pal Matthew Perry work with two hand-picked scribes, Alex Barnow and Marc Firek, to co-write the pilot based on Perry’s original idea. Perry plays the manager of a rundown sports arena in San Diego who decides to reevaluate his life after he turns 40.

“She’s a terrific producer,” Perry says. “She has like 41 shows. I hope the other 40 get canceled so we can have her full time on our show.”

Friends and colleagues say Tarses came out the other side of her ABC experience and her time in the spotlight (the glare of an unflattering cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine) with wisdom and perspective. She had enjoyed great success at a young age during a heady time for the biz, and in hindsight, she has some regrets about how she handled herself in that period, friends say. But 15 years on, Tarses is thriving professionally in part because she has been through the wars, and she now has greater sense of personal well-being that is reflected in her professional success. (So much so that she was willing to revisit her past in serving as a consultant to Aaron Sorkin’s inside-showbiz NBC drama, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” in which the network exec character played by Amanda Peet was loosely based on Tarses.)

Tarses has shown no signs of interest in returning to the executive ranks, though friends suspect it’s a never-say-never situation. For now, she’s happy to have made it on her own terms, working out of her Sony Pictures TV-based FanFare production banner, by dint of her talent and an extraordinary work ethic.

“She’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever known — to the extent that I sometimes feel guilty for only working a 13-hour day,” Thomas says. She marveled that Tarses was busy strategizing about staffing needs on her shows and development for next year while the two flew back to L.A. from Gotham after Turner’s May 19 upfront presentation. “The average person would be dining out for a while on all her success, but Jamie’s not even stopping to take a breath,” Thomas says. “She’s right back to it, working to make the shows the best they can be.”

(Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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