Jamie Tarses, first woman to run network passes at 56

ABC Executive Jamie Tarses

Jamie Tarses, the first woman to run a network entertainment division, passed away this morning from complications stemming from a cardiac event she suffered in early fall. She was 56.

An illustrious TV executive, Tarses was instrumental in developing such iconic shows as NBC’s Friends and Frasier and reached the zenith of the network programming executive ladder by age 32, becoming president of ABC Entertainment.  Tarses transcended the media business to become a legitimate celebrity who was both admired and scrutinized. She then went on to produce popular shows such as ABC’s Happy Endings, TBS’ My Boys, TNT’s Franklin & Bash and Amazon Prime Video’s The Wilds.

Tarses never regained consciousness following her cardiac event and was not able to see success of the December debut and Season 2 renewal of The Wilds nor the great! pre-launch buzz for The Mysterious Benedict Society, solidified with the recent decision by Disney to move the series from Hulu to Disney+.

Born Sara James Tarses in Pittsburgh in 1964, Tarses and grew up in Los Angeles. Both Jamie and her brother, TV writer Matt Tarses, followed in the footsteps of their father, television writer Jay Tarses, by pursuing a career in television.

After graduating from Williams College in 1985 with a degree in theater, Tarses got a job as an assistant on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. She went on to work as a casting director for Lorimar Productions.

In September 1987, Tarses was hired by NBC President of Entertainment Brandon Tartikoff as manager, creative affairs for NBC Productions, setting off her epic career. Just three months later, in December 1987, she moved to the network as manager of current comedy programming, overseeing such series as Cheers and A Different World.

By July 1988, Tarses had switched to development as manager of comedy development and was promoted to director of comedy development within seven months. She was involved in the development of such hit series as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Wings and Blossom.

In 1994, Tarses was promoted to SVP Primetime Series and second in command under her mentor and NBC’s entertainment president  Warren Littlefield. She played a major role in the development of such signature NBC comedies as Friends, Frasier, NewsRadio, and Mad About You.

Her friend and mentor Warren Littlefield said, “Jamie’s development skills were extraordinary, In her NBC days, surrounded by superstar executives, she stood out. She had the ability to make writers feel safe and to get the most out of them. She fought for them. Understanding writers’ wants and needs probably began by growing up in a household with her dad who wrote and produced comedies. She perfected that understanding as she became a development exec. When she left NBC we knew she would be missed but opportunity knocked at ABC.”

At that point, Tarses received the attention of then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who approached her in February 1996 about becoming president of ABC Entertainment while she was still under contract at NBC. After months of speculation, Tarses was named president of ABC Entertainment in June 1996. At 32, she was one of the youngest executives and the first woman to be named entertainment president at a major network.

The position secured Tarses’ celebrity status, however it also brought even more media attention, including her personal life being scrutinized in the tabloids. Even though she was under an unimaginable amount of stress, Tarses developed and launched several hit comedy series such as Chuck Lorre’s Dharma & Greg, Two Guys and a Girl, starring Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds, David E. Kelley’s The Practice, Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, and also oversaw the launch and growth of Spin City. 

As ABC’s ratings tanked during the first year of Tarses’ tenure with a slate she had inherited, and with Tarses’ difficulty navigating the corporate politics required for the position, she eventually resigned in 1999 after a Disney corporate restructuring.

ALSO READ: Dustin “Screech” Diamond loses battle to lung cancer

After the stormy end to her impressive executive career, Jamie Tarses launched her second career as a successful TV producer. Over the past two decades, she developed a slew of projects that went to pilot and more than a dozen series on her own, through her production banner FanFare, or in collaboration with high-profile producing partners.

After leaving ABC, she served as president of James Burrows’ Three Sisters Productions. She then partnered with now-20th TV president Karey Burke; with Gavin Polone; and, more recently, with now-Netflix film chief Scott Stuber. She had overall deals at Universal Television, Sony Pictures Television and ABC Signature.

Burke, now President of 20th Television said, “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. 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 sorely missed.”

Tarses executive produced series including ABC’s Happy Endings, The Mayor and Mr. Sunshine, CBS’s Mad Love, created by her brother Matt, NBC’s Marry Me, TBS’s My Boys and Men at Work, as well as TNT’s Hawthorne and Franklin & Bash.

After a decade and a half producing for traditional networks, Tarses executive produced Champaign, ILL for YouTube, which was her third collaboration with creator David Caspe after Happy Endings and Marry Me.

David Caspe said “Jamie Tarses is a legend. To say she changed my life is a ridiculous understatement. She sold my first show which introduced me to my wife. And then sold a show about me proposing to her. Which we shot while my wife was pregnant with my first child. But my life was only one of literal thousands that she changed and touched forever. She is a trailblazer, an icon, a champion of writers, new voices, stylish, generous and kind. So, so kind. But as good as she was at anything, she was an even better friend, mother and person. I am heartbroken for her family and her enormous family of friends. I love you forever, Boss. Here’s to you.”

Tarses recently reinvented herself as a producer of YA streaming series with Amazon Prime’s The Wilds and Disney+’s upcoming The Mysterious Benedict Society. She was a hands-on executive producer on The Wilds and spent time on the set in New Zealand.

Amazon studios Head, Jennifer Salke said, “Jamie was a titan in the media industry, pioneering female leadership for so many of us. 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.”

Tarses also recently re-teamed with My Boys creator and close friend Betsy Thomas for Beth & Sam, a half-hour single-camera comedy executive produced by Jim Parsons, which is in the works at HBO Max.

Betsy Thomas shared, “Jamie had such a true love for movies, television, theater, books and ideas that both transcended her work and absolutely inspired it. She was the ultimate fan.”

At the time of her death, Tarses had an overall deal at her longtime studio Sony Pictures TV, which was behind most of her broadcast and cable series, and had multiple projects in development, including Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person, a dramedy at ABC written by her brother Matt Tarses and executive produced by Freddie Highmore. 

Sony Pictures TV Studios said in a statement, “We were always excited when Jamie called to talk about a project because we knew coming from her it was going to be special, and it was always a long call because we would spend at least half of it talking about life, family and the state of the business. Her unparalleled taste led to the hundreds of episodes of television we made together and we couldn’t be more proud of our joint history, both personally and professionally.”

Years after developing and greenlighting Sorkin’s first TV series, Sports Night, Tarses served as a consultant on his NBC drama series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It featured the character Jordan McDeere, the head of fictional network NBS and played by Amanda Peet, which was loosely based on Tarses.

Her brother Matt Tarses with whom Jamie frequently collaborated, said, “For all her talent and success in entertainment, the thing Jamie was proudest of and most consumed by were her two kids. She was never happier than when she was with Wyatt and Sloane.”

In addition to her career and home life, Tarses also was actively involved in many charitable organizations including Step Up, Young Storytellers and Save the Children.  She also spent many years volunteering at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

Nominate Someone You know For The Reel Black List OR Reel Women

Tarses is survived by her partner, Paddy Aubrey; their children, Wyatt and Sloane; her parents, Jay Tarses and Rachel Tarses; and her siblings Matt Tarses and Mallory Tarses, her sister-in-law Katie Tarses, three nieces and a nephew.

At the family’s request donations can be made to Young Storytellers here.