Jamie Tarses, Pioneering Television Executive, Dies at 56

Jamie Tarses
Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Jamie Tarses

She served as president of ABC Entertainment from 1996-99 after helping develop hits like 'Friends,' 'Mad About You' and 'Frasier' at NBC.

Jamie Tarses, the producer and groundbreaking TV executive who as president of ABC Entertainment from 1996-99 became the first woman to serve as head a network entertainment division, died Monday. She was 56.

Tarses died in Los Angeles of complications from a cardiac event suffered last fall, according to her family.

Survivors include her father, Jay Tarses, an Emmy winner who created such innovative TV shows as Buffalo Bill and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and her brother, Matt Tarses, who has produced series including Sports Night, Scrubs and The Goldbergs.

Tarses had recently turned 32 when she was brought to ABC in June 1996 by then-Walt Disney Co. president Michael Ovitz. At NBC, she had helped develop such hits as Friends, Mad About You, Frasier, NewsRadio and Caroline in the City as a comedy programmer under network president Warren Littlefield.

"At a time when all of the big networks were losing young viewers, Ms. Tarses seemed to speak the language of that coveted audience," The Wall Street Journal wrote at the time. "She had what is known in TV programming parlance as 'taste,' or the ability to recognize hot ideas, writers and stars."

However, she would struggle at ABC. The sitcom Dharma & Greg, the Aaron Sorkin-created Sports Night and the David E. Kelley drama The Practice were among her few success stories; meanwhile, she became a focus of intense media scrutiny, with The New York Times Magazine notably publishing an unflattering profile of her in 1997.

Tarses resigned in August 1999 with two years left on her original contract after Disney said it was merging its Buena Vista Television production arm with the third-place network to form a new unit headed by Tarses' then-boss Stu Bloomberg and Buena Vista chief Lloyd Braun.

Tarses said she was happy to be leaving ABC behind, and she went on to executive produce such shows as My Boys, Mad Love, Hawthorne, Mr. Sunshine, Happy Endings, Men at Work, Franklin & Bash, The Wilds and The Mysterious Benedict Society, which debuts this year on Disney+.

"Jamie was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word," Karey Burke, now president of Disney's 20th Television and before that president of ABC Entertainment, said in a statement. "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 solely missed."

Said NBC in a statement, "We are saddened by the passing of Jamie Tarses, an architect of NBC’s Must See TV era. She was a trailblazer for women in entertainment with an unmatched vision for the potential of TV. Her legacy will endure as generations discover those legendary shows."

Born in Pittsburgh on March 19, 1964, Sara James Tarses was raised in Los Angeles and graduated from Williams College with a degree in theater. She started out as a talent executive with Saturday Night Live in 1985 and worked as a casting director for Lorimar Productions before Brandon Tartikoff hired her as an NBC executive in 1987.

In 2006-07, she served as a consultant on NBC and Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, helping shape the character of the drama's fictional network president played by Amanda Peet.

More recently, Tarses partnered with Burke, Jim Burrows and Gavin Polone in production companies; had her own firm at Sony Pictures Television; volunteered at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and served on the advisory board of Young Storytellers, a nonprofit organization whose programs "highlight young people as the center of their own narratives."

"Within a few hours of meeting her, I felt like I'd known her for years," longtime friend and collaborator Gabrielle Allan-Greenberg said. "Jamie was always there when you needed her and valued her friendships more than anyone I know. She was brilliant, quick and 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."

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

Survivors include her partner, Paddy Aubrey, an executive chef and restaurant owner, and their children, Wyatt and Sloane; her parents, Rachel and Jay; siblings Mallory and Matt; sister-in-law Katie Tarses; and three nieces and a nephew.

Donations can be made to Young Storytellers.

Chris Gardner contributed to this report.