NO DOUBT ABC ENTERTAINMENT president Jamie Tarses will put on her best face today for her first meeting with reporters since Stu Bloomberg was installed above her as chairman of the entertainment division.
But despite assurances that she’s content with her new role and plans to stay, many still believe that at any mo-ment, Disney will pay Tarses to leave her post and end one of the uglier chapters in network TV history.
Forget aggressive inline skating: Tarses-bashing has become the latest extreme sport to hit Southern California. Not since Michael Ovitz (who hired Tarses) has a Hollywood executive faced such a barrage of negative press and backbiting from colleagues.
Granted, it’s pretty tough to feel sorry for someone who has risen so far so fast, and there’s little doubt the 33-year-old has helped dig her own grave. But Tarses has gone from Hollywood wunderkind to town pariah while running the network on her own for less than six months, which leads me to believe there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
As a young and attractive woman and the first female president of a Big Three entertainment division, Tarses has had more scrutiny than perhaps any other person in her position. She had no grace period to learn the job and make her mistakes outside of the spotlight — a situation that wasn’t helped by her unwise decision to allow a New York Times Magazine reporter to trail her on the job.
Criticism from some outside ABC has been loud and particularly personal. But Tarses has received little support from her own company too.
JUST AFTER NEWS BROKE of her imminent hire at ABC, I met with one of the network’s chief press agents, who has since left the company. When I asked him what he thought about his future boss, he immediately launched into rumors about her sex life. Somehow the sexual escapades of Hollywood’s male executives aren’t considered relevant to the jobs they do. More recently, when I discussed the decision to bring Bloomberg in above her, one top Disney executive said, “I think she should shut up and do her job.”
To say that gender has nothing to do with the vitriol toward Tarses seems naive. I get the sense that some people simply can’t stand the idea that this young woman has the job she has. Judging just from the number of people who refer to her as a girl, the attitudes toward her are patronizing, and her own company has added fuel to the fire by undermining her authority nearly every step of the way.
Men are not alone in resenting Tarses. To some females, she represents all the things they despise about Holly-wood — a city that values youth and beauty above all other qualities in women. One female NBC employee told me Tarses just wasn’t as sober and commanding as she expected a top woman executive to be. One of her chief examples: the lacy shirts Tarses wore under her suits.
Like it or not, to get respect as a woman in Hollywood, you must be an impeccable professional, sharper and sav-vier than your male counterparts. And you must take sex entirely out of the picture.
In this industry, like politics, image is almost as important as substance, and if you have a high-pitched voice like Tarses, some people, unfortunately, won’t take you seriously. To many, presidential still means male.
It’s telling that when Bloomberg got the job as chairman at ABC, his lawyer Ernie Del was on vacation in Scot-land, playing golf with ABC’s former chairman Ted Harbert, Columbia TriStar TV Group president Jon Feltheimer and CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves. As much as we hate to admit it, it’s still a boy’s club, and Jamie’s just not a member.
MAYBE TARSES WAS NEVER the right person to lead ABC out of its ratings slump. Maybe she was never qualified for such an elite position. Few people are, which is why the life span of most network presidents is so short. It’s hard to believe, though, that Tarses was any less qualified than Bob Iger, who by his own admission had never read a script when he got the job.
Because Tarses was essentially demoted before she could put her first fall schedule on the air, we probably won’t be able to judge her on merit alone until after she’s gone. We’ll certainly never know what she could have done under different circumstances. And that’s a shame.