Jamie Tarses, one of the most dynamic television executives of her era who helped build NBC’s Must-See TV lineup and went on to become the first woman to lead a Big Three network programming division, died Monday following complications from a cardiac event last fall, according to Tarses’ family. She was 56.
Tarses was born into the industry as the daughter of famed comedy writer-producer Jay Tarses, best known as the creator of “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and “Buffalo Bill.” As a network executive, she made a big splash at NBC in the early 1990s, developing “Friends” and “Mad About You.” She made headlines when she moved over to ABC Entertainment as president during a turbulent era for the network and then-new parent company, Disney.
By age 32, Tarses was the first woman to head a network entertainment division — and one of the youngest execs ever to lead a Big Three — in her role as ABC Entertainment president from 1996 to 1999. During her tenure, she oversaw popular series including Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” David E. Kelley’s “The Practice,” “Dharma & Greg” and “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.”
Born Sara James Tarses in Pittsburgh in 1964, the Williams College graduate started her career in entertainment in 1985 as an assistant at “Saturday Night Live,” before becoming a casting director at Lorimar and eventually joining NBC in 1987 after being hired by then-NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff. Tarses was integral to the development of some of the network’s most well-known hits. Her star rose accordingly.
“Within a few hours of meeting her, I felt like I’d known her for years,” said longtime friend and collaborator Gabrielle Allan-Greenberg in a statement shared by Tarses’ family. “Jamie was always there when you needed her and valued her friendships more than anyone I know. She was brilliant, quick, curious, and read everything she could. Her mind worked at an incredible pace and she loved to challenge it. There wasn’t a puzzle, mystery, or riddle she couldn’t solve, which made her a brilliant editor, storyteller, and producer. She loved bringing people together and they loved being around her. Unbelievably loyal and a champion of creativity, she loved to laugh and made everyone feel like they were the funniest person in the room.”
During her time at ABC, the Wall Street Journal wrote: “At a time when all of the big networks were losing young viewers, Ms. Tarses seemed to speak the language of that coveted audience. She had what is known in TV programming parlance as ‘taste,’ or the ability to recognize hot ideas, writers and stars.” But her high-profile position and status as a female executive trailblazer also meant she was subjected to a great deal of scrutiny, and coverage that would surely have a much different tone today than it did in 1996 and 1997.
After a rocky three years at the top, Tarses stepped down from the position following the merger of Disney’s production group into ABC’s primetime entertainment division, which led to reports of a strained professional relationship with Lloyd Braun, then-co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television Group alongside Stu Bloomberg.
“Jamie was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word. She shattered stereotypes and ideas about what a female executive could achieve, and paved the way for others, at a cost to herself. She was a mentor and friend, and many of us owe so much to her,” said 20th Television president Karey Burke in a statement. “As an executive and producer, she was a champion for storytellers, having been raised by one of the all-time greats. Her talent and contribution to our community will be solely missed.”
Post-ABC, Tarses went on to have a prolific producing career, producing “My Boys,” “Happy Endings” and “Marry Me,” among other series. Most recently, she produced Amazon’s “The Wilds” and Disney Plus’ “The Mysterious Benedict Society, the latter of which premieres this year.
She is survived by her partner Paddy Aubrey and their two children, Wyatt and Sloane, as well as her parents, Rachel and Jay, siblings Mallory and Matt, sister-in-law Katie Tarses, three nieces and a nephew.
“For all her talent and success in entertainment, the thing Jamie was proudest of and most consumed by were her two kids,” said her brother Matt Tarses, a writer with whom she frequently collaborated. “She was never happier than when she was with Wyatt and Sloane.”
Tarses spent years volunteering at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and was involved in charitable organizations including Step Up, Save the Children and Young Storytellers. Her family is asking that donations be made to Young Storytellers.
“Jamie had such a true love for movies, television, theater, books and ideas that both transcended her work and absolutely inspired it,” said close friend and collaborator Betsy Thomas. “She was the ultimate fan.”