Jamie Tarses, first woman to oversee programming for a broadcast network, dies at 56 (2024)

Jamie Tarses, a fast-rising television executive who shepherded hit NBC comedies such as “Friends” and “Frasier” to prime-time success, then spent three tumultuous years at ABC as the first woman to oversee programming for a broadcast network, died Feb. 1 in Los Angeles. She was 56.

Her agent Rick Rosen confirmed the death, citing a family statement that said the cause was complications from a cardiac event. Ms. Tarses had a stroke last fall and had been in a coma for an extended period, according to the New York Times.

When Ms. Tarses (pronounced TAR-siss) became the president of ABC Entertainment in 1996, she was not only the first woman in her position but one of the youngest programming executives in history at age 32. In an industry dominated by men with enormous egos, she was openly ambitious and undeniably talented, known for polishing scripts and nurturing hip, ensemble-driven sitcoms at NBC.


“She was truly great at developing those sophisticated comedies, like ‘Friends,’ ” NBC programming executive Warren Littlefield later told the Times. “The writers felt a kindred soul and champion in her. She was very good at working with written material and had a strong eye for casting.”

Ms. Tarses had grown up dissecting dialogue and jokes written by her father, Jay Tarses, who created shows such as “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” a comedy-drama, and “Buffalo Bill,” a talk-show sitcom. Arriving at NBC a few years out of college, she rose to become head of comedy development and worked on shows including “Mad About You,” “NewsRadio,” “Caroline in the City” and “Frasier,” a spinoff of “Cheers.”

She picked up “3rd Rock From the Sun” when ABC passed on the show, and successfully lobbied for NBC to back “Friends,” which ran for 10 seasons and continues to draw viewers in syndication and on streaming. “My sensibility is the sensibility that people seem to want to see,” she once said. “The shows I helped develop are the shows I want to watch, the shows I will show up at home for.”

A Newsweek reporter noted that “she could have easily been a character on ‘Friends’ ” — paparazzi photographed her with Matthew Perry, one of the show’s stars — and when ABC began searching for a new executive who could reach younger audiences, it turned to Ms. Tarses, whom Capital Cities/ABC President Bob Iger described as “an agent of change.”

She joined a network in flux, competing not only with historical rivals CBS and NBC but fledgling cable stations and an upstart broadcaster named Fox. The Walt Disney Co. had recently bought Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion, but the network had slipped to No. 3 in the ratings and had no clear identity.

Ms. Tarses was shadowed by rumors and criticism even before her first day on the job, accused of being inexperienced and immature. Detractors said she showed poor judgment, notably when she pushed for a production deal with her boyfriend at the time, Robert Morton. The fact that she was a young woman only seemed to fuel the animosity.


“I think there is a fair amount of sexism and reverse ageism at work here,” former ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert told Time magazine in 1997. “That gets the skeptics going full speed.” Later that year, an 8,000-word New York Times Magazine cover story quoted him saying, “The town hates her, and I’m not sure even hits will fix that.”

The article, written by Lynn Hirschberg, was a candid portrait of network power struggles and industry sexism, with one agent saying that “women are emotional and Jamie is particularly emotional,” which “changes how you do business with her.” Ms. Tarses was described as possessing a “mix of insecurity and ambition, confidence and self-destructiveness, brilliance and lack of executive skills” that left critics wondering how long she would last in the executive ranks.

Publicly, at least, she was defended by her boss. “TV is still a male-dominated, chauvinistic world,” Iger said, “and they just do not want that young, articulate, talented, outspoken woman to succeed.” But in the summer of 1997, ABC announced that some of her duties would be taken over by Stu Bloomberg, a veteran programming executive.


Ms. Tarses was effectively given another boss two years later in Lloyd Braun, who led Disney’s television studio. The executives fought over a merger between the network and the production studio, and Ms. Tarses announced her resignation in August 1999, days after ABC denied reports that she would be forced out.

By then she had worked on hits including “Dharma & Greg,” about a mismatched couple, and “The Practice,” a legal drama, in addition to well-received series such as “Sports Night.” But it was not enough to turn around ABC’s ratings slump or overcome criticism of her management style.

Ms. Tarses seemed not to care. “I can’t tell you how happy I am,” she told the Los Angeles Times after resigning, explaining that she had “never signed on for” constant speculation about her work status.

“I just don’t want to play anymore,” she said. “The work is a blast. The rest of this nonsense I don’t need.”


Sara James Tarses was born in Pittsburgh on March 16, 1964, and grew up in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles. She studied theater at Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1985, and spent a year as a production assistant at “Saturday Night Live” before working as a casting director in California. In 1987, she moved to NBC.

Ms. Tarses was still under contract with the network when Michael Ovitz, the newly installed president of Disney, went looking for an ABC programming chief. To get out from under the deal, she was rumored to have claimed she was sexually harassed by Don Ohlmeyer, the network’s West Coast president. Ms. Tarses and NBC denied the story, while Ohlmeyer called Ovitz “the Antichrist,” accusing him of leaking rumors to the press.

In a statement, 20th Television head Karey Burke, a former ABC Entertainment chief, said that Ms. Tarses “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.”


Ms. Tarses’s marriage to Dan McDermott, a television executive at DreamWorks, ended in divorce. Survivors include her partner, Paddy Aubrey; their two children, Wyatt and Sloane; her parents; a brother; and a sister.

In the past two decades, Ms. Tarses worked as an executive producer on shows including “Happy Endings” on ABC, “My Boys” on TBS and “Franklin & Bash” on TNT. Her most recent project, “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” a mystery adventure show based on a series of young-adult novels, is slated to premiere on Disney Plus later this year.

She also consulted for “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Aaron Sorkin’s comedy-drama about the production of a live comedy show. The series featured a lone female executive (Amanda Peet) partly modeled after Ms. Tarses, who said “Studio 60” captured the tension between making a show that was exceptional and one that appealed to a broad audience.


“Everybody begins at that point of ‘I want to do something that is of very good quality, I want people to enjoy it, learn from it, be inspired from it,’ ” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2006. Even if sacrifices had to be made for commercial reasons, she added, “always aspiring to [greatness] is certainly admirable, and what everyone would like to be able to do every day of their lives.”

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Jamie Tarses, first woman to oversee programming for a broadcast network, dies at 56 (2024)


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