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Jamie Tarses broke a Hollywood glass ceiling as the first network entertainment president, but "unvarnished sexism" helped bring her down

  • Tarses died Monday at age 56 after suffering a stroke last fall that left her in a coma. She's best remembered for developing NBC 1990s hits like Friends before becoming the first female network entertainment president, helming ABC Entertainment from 1996 to 1999. "A young, female executive arrives in the men’s locker room that was broadcast television in the 1990s and snaps a few towels of her own, working with writers to shape juggernaut comedies like Mad About You and Friends," writes Brooks Barnes in Tarses' New York Times obituary. "She is so good at spotting hits that she becomes, at 32, the president of entertainment at ABC, the first woman ever to serve as a network’s top programmer. But she fizzles in epic fashion, brought down by corporate dysfunction, unvarnished sexism, self-sabotage, weaponized industry gossip and scalding news media scrutiny." Former NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield said of his former colleague: "Jamie had a remarkable ability to engage writers — to understand their twisted, dark, joyful, brilliant complexity and really speak their language and help them achieve their creative goals. She was highly creative herself and, of course, came from a family of writers." Barnes writes that Tarses faced "extreme challenges" from upstart broadcast competitors such as UPN and The WB and cable channels. "Then came The Article," says Barnes. "After a year at ABC, Ms. Tarses, who had alienated some colleagues by not returning calls and missing morning meetings, gave the journalist Lynn Hirschberg unfettered access for an 8,000-word cover story in The New York Times Magazine. The piece portrayed Ms. Tarses as 'a nervous girl' who swung erratically between arrogance and insecurity. 'Women are emotional, and Jamie is particularly emotional,' one male agent, speaking anonymously, was quoted as saying. 'You think of her as a girl, and it changes how you do business with her.' The article, which pointedly discussed Ms. Tarses’s hairstyle and feminine way of sitting, helped color the rest of Ms. Tarses’s career. Once someone is typecast in Hollywood, even as an executive, getting people to see that person in a different light can be a never-ending battle." As Betsy Thomas, a screenwriter and friend of Tarses, put it: "A lot of it was pure sexism." Barnes adds: "Even so, Ms. Tarses was criticized at times as showing poor judgment. In 1998, ABC hosted more than 100 television critics and entertainment journalists from across the United States at a promotional event in Pasadena, Calif. ABC stars were also invited, including a young Ryan Reynolds, then appearing on a sitcom called Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. As the evening wore on, reporters witnessed Ms. Tarses and Mr. Reynolds go outside and become amorous. The indiscretion, which was reported on by some newspapers, contributed to a narrative that had congealed around Ms. Tarses: She was too impetuous for such a big job." When Tarses resigned in 1999 having just one hit, Dharma & Greg, and one critically acclaimed show, Sports Night, she told the Los Angeles Times: "I just don’t want to play anymore. The work is a blast. The rest of this nonsense I don’t need.”


    • Female TV executives credit Jamie Tarses for paving the way for other women in TV's top ranks: “Jamie’s creative genius sparked culture-defining shows that have spanned decades,” said Walt Disney Television chairman Dana Walden. “She gave an early voice to some of the industry’s most prolific storytellers, and boldly led ABC at a time when the industry saw very few women in leadership roles. She will be remembered as a mentor and role model for many, myself included, and an inspiration to the entire creative community for generations to come.” Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke adds: “I knew we were in for a treat if Jamie wanted to share a creative passion. She was never the producer to sit by the side but, rather, felt completely connected to the writer and the creative in every way. It was an honor for us at Amazon Studios to partner with her on The Wilds and her passion and brilliance were felt throughout the series. We will all miss her dearly and our hearts go out to her friends and family.”

    TOPICS: Jamie Tarses, Dana Walden, Jennifer Salke, Warren Littlefield