It’s hard to believe now, but it took until 1996 for the broadcast networks to finally hire their first-ever female entertainment president, when ABC recruited Jamie Tarses away from NBC to take the job. There had been a handful of other women in powerful slots, including Lucie Salhany, who was briefly chair of the Fox Broadcasting Co. before launching UPN. But until streaming upended the business, “entertainment president” was the most visible, and arguably the most important, leadership job at a network. And until Tarses, it had been all men.
Tarses’ rise at ABC coincided with the start of my career as a cub reporter, covering the network TV business in Los Angeles, and one of my first duties was to chronicle the tenure of the young trailblazer. But from the start, Tarses was faced with many in Hollywood looking to tear her down — be it rivals jealous of her age, or the sexism that persists today but was still rampant in 1996.
Tarses was the wunderkind who was behind much of NBC’s “Must See TV” success, including “Friends” and “Frasier” — and she came from TV royalty, as her father Jay Tarses is a well-known TV writer (“The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd”). It’s easy to forget now, but Tarses’ rise also fueled the moment that the networks’ chase for young demographics kicked into high gear. Household ratings suddenly didn’t matter anymore, as the “Friends” phenomenon led webheads to focus their efforts on the elusive adults 18-49 bracket. And Tarses was a demo whisperer: ABC, struggling in the ratings, hoped to regain some luster by bringing in a new crop of young-skewing series to the network — especially comedy.
She delivered. 1997 wasn’t much of a successful year for broadcast TV, but the few shows that succeeded included ABC’s “Dharma & Greg” and “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.” Tarses, however, was frequently second-guessed by then-ABC Inc. president Bob Iger — a former ABC Entertainment president himself — and felt stifled by Iger’s insistence to bring in chairmen above her, as if she couldn’t handle the job on her own.
And then there was that infamous New York Times Magazine piece. Just days before ABC’s summer 1997 Television Critics Association press tour, Lynn Hirschberg’s opus “Jamie Tarses’ Fall, As Scheduled,” published. Hirschberg was given free reign at ABC, and what she came back with was unflattering, to say the least. It churned the rumor mill, leading to what may still be the most raucous and crowded press tour executive session in history.
Tarses kept a low profile at the tour until then, avoiding other panels and steering clear of the network’s evening events. When she did make a brief appearance, either to use the restroom or travel to her room, a number of reporters tried to chase her down. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before or after at TCA.
When it finally came time for the exec session, with Tarses and ABC entertainment chairman Stu Bloomberg, the panel itself was mostly calm. Tarses called the media coverage of it all “rather peculiar,” and it was.
The photo, above, was taken of the reporters surrounding Tarses after the exec session (including yes, that’s me and my colleague Cynthia Littleton standing next to each other at the bottom left), and it appeared on the front of USA Today’s Life section the next day — as if anyone outside of Hollywood’s insular TV business would care. It also was the first-ever “press gaggle” that now persists as a TCA tradition after virtually every session to this day. Credit to then-Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth, who later that week called the harsh spotlight on Tarses “obscene.”
Tarses’ tenure lasted two more years, until 1999, and its other success stories included the critically acclaimed “Sports Night.” In the end, her taste was perhaps a bit too narrow for ABC, but broadcast-network TV as a whole had started its long descent into erosion (even execs at No. 1 NBC were starting to see declines) and no one knew what worked anymore.
Tarses faced the scrutiny of being a young woman in ways most of her competitors didn’t (although, having shattered the glass ceiling, in the following years Nancy Tellem became entertainment president at CBS and Susanne Daniels was named co-head of entertainment at The WB), but also worked at a network that saw constant shuffle. Tarses and Bloomberg managed to work well together, but the final straw was when ABC merged its entertainment division with its studio, and Lloyd Braun was named co-chairman with Bloomberg above Tarses. (Soon, Bloomberg would be gone too, and eventually so would Braun. So goes the mostly revolving door of network toppers.)
As the New York Times’ Bill Carter noted in 1999, but has perhaps been lost to memory over time, NBC arguably lost its way in comedy after Tarses left for ABC, and Tarses departed the Alphabet network in much better shape (and ready for a younger-demo future, which it capitalized on in the 2000s) than when she arrived. She doesn’t get enough credit for that, perhaps due to those salacious headlines (and, fair enough, perhaps how she handled that scrutiny).
But free of the press microscope as an entertainment president, Tarses reinvented herself as a successful producer, having landed many shows on the air in subsequent years. Some former network toppers disappear after leaving that gig, but Tarses in many ways became even more successful doing more of what she did best: Taking brilliant creators’ ideas and helping turn them into TV shows. That notably included several shows for Turner, including “My Boys,” “Men at Work,” “Hawthorne” and “Franklin & Bash.” She helped shepherd one of the greatest comedies of the 2010s, ABC’s gone-too-soon “Happy Endings.” And Tarses was busy right up to her passing, via Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds” and Disney Plus’ “The Mysterious Benedict Society.”
I remember having lunch with Jamie sometime in the late 2000s, and marveling at how she survived those nearly four years and had managed to move on to her successful producing career. She was rightfully press-shy after those years, and preferred never to be in the spotlight, the byproduct of an experience that I think unfortunately scarred her for good. I think we were all happy to see her thrive in the years since then. Before the tragic news of her passing, often when I watched an episode of “Happy Endings” (which you should — it’s a fantastic show) I thought about how glad I was to see Jamie get her “happy ending.” Not only was Jamie Tarses a trailblazer, but she continued to have an impact on a medium she loved.