Jamie Tarses came to prominence in the 1990s as a wunderkind programming executive at NBC where she helped develop hits such as “Friends” and “Mad About You.”

She was so successful that in 1996 rival ABC recruited her to be the first female head of entertainment for a big three broadcast network. But she lasted barely three years there amid clashes and second-guessing from her bosses.

Ms. Tarses, who died Monday at the age of 56 in Los Angeles of what her family called complications from a cardiac event, left a complex legacy. She went from a creative genius reshaping prime time television to a cautionary tale of the executive who rose too fast and burned too many bridges along the way.

Just 32 when she joined ABC, Ms. Tarses was one of the youngest and the first woman to hold such a powerful position. With that came scrutiny and second-guessing from an industry that thrives on schadenfreude.

Less than a year into the job, Ms. Tarses’ eventual departure was already the subject of intense speculation, so much so that she once began a presentation to advertisers at Radio City Music Hall by saying, “What, you were expecting someone else?”

Ms. Tarses’ brief reign at ABC was filled with enough plot twists for 10 soap operas. A headstrong executive with her own rulebook who was unafraid to be dismissive of her superiors, Ms. Tarses was tagged with labels such as immature and challenging to manage—criticisms that had never been heard when she was at NBC developing hip comedies that young viewers flocked to and advertisers paid a premium to be on.

“She didn’t sand the edges of who she was and in a world where there is a lot of political correctness, you knew where she stood and she fought for things she believed in,’’ said Warren Littlefield, who was Ms. Tarses’ boss for many years at NBC. He added that the television business then was a “very male world not used to a woman who is opinionated and doesn’t back down—God bless her.”

Her bosses at ABC and parent Walt Disney Co. tried to rein in Ms. Tarses, forcing her to work with older male executives in the hopes she’d either play nice or quit.

While battles between executives typically go on behind closed doors, the infighting at ABC during Ms. Tarses’ tenure took place under klieg lights.

The media was obsessed with the young woman who was blowing up the boys club that was network television. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it “Jamie Mania.” Just weeks after the Radio City event, she was the subject of an unflattering

New York Times Magazine

cover story with the headline: “Jamie Tarses’ Fall As Scheduled.”

Jamie Tarses in 1997, the year after ABC recruited her.


Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

Her every move was chronicled and often the coverage of her seemed more appropriate for a celebrity rather than a television executive. Ms. Tarses was also single so her dating life was seen as fair game as well. When she left ABC in 1999 she was asked by a reporter if she would do it all again.

“If I knew there would be far more attention paid to the bullshit than the work, I don’t know,” she said.

While many of her male colleagues and some members of the media portrayed Ms. Tarses as a drama queen in over her head, a generation of female executives coming of age in the 1990s had a quite different take on her.

“She was a total rock star,” said

Dana Walden

who was a junior executive at 20th Century Fox during Ms. Tarses’ heyday and is now the chairman of Disney’s Television Entertainment units. Ms. Walden recalled how Ms. Tarses took command of any room she was in. “Your attention was drawn to her. She had a starlike charisma and held this mythic status in my head…that’s a woman who is really blazing a trail.”

“Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman said Ms. Tarses was never given her due and paid a heavy price for breaking the glass ceiling.

“She was really held back by a lot of men,” Ms. Kauffman said.

Although she was born in Pittsburgh on March 16, 1964, Sara James Tarses was a Hollywood prodigy. Her father, Jay Tarses, wrote for “The Bob Newhart Show” and created the critical darling “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.” She started as an assistant at “Saturday Night Live” at 21 after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, which was also her father’s alma mater.

A few years later, legendary NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff tapped her to work in programming.

Speaking at a Television Academy event in 2018, Ms. Tarses said having a famous father isn’t all it is cracked up to be when you’re trying to make your own name in the business.

“I took a lot of lumps when I got the job for having a dad who was doing shows for the network,” she said.

Ironically, Mr. Tarses was known for his loathing of television executives. Ms. Tarses did little to change that sentiment, once telling him in a large meeting at NBC that a show he was developing “wasn’t his best work.”

Ms. Tarses said she programmed for herself—a young professional trying to find her path. That sentiment was also in line with Madison Avenue, which during the mid-1990s was becoming increasingly obsessed with reaching viewers under 50 who lived in big cities.

Although she panned her father’s work, Ms. Tarses was viewed as a creative-friendly executive more interested in getting the best show on the air than the best business deal, which was another source of tension with her bosses.

Ms. Kauffman said Ms. Tarses was an integral part of the development of “Friends.” Besides persuading NBC brass to go along with the lengthy theme song “I’ll Be There for You” rather than a short intro to squeeze in more commercials, she also served as protector of the creative vision of the show. Ms. Kauffman recalled the network wanting “Friends” to add an older character on the show in the hopes of broadening the audience. Ms. Tarses stood up to her bosses and stopped the idea in its tracks. “That doesn’t always happen,” Ms. Kauffman said.

Besides “Friends” and “Mad About You,” Ms. Tarses was involved in the development of several critically acclaimed shows during her brief stay at ABC including “Sports Night,” “The Practice” and “Dharma and Greg.”

After leaving ABC, Ms. Tarses steered clear of the limelight but kept on producing with credits such as “My Boys” and “Happy Endings.” She most recently was working on “The Mysterious Benedict Society” for Disney+ which is set to premiere later this year.

Survivors include her partner, Paddy Aubrey; their children, Wyatt and Sloane; her parents, Jay and Rachel; and siblings, Mallory and Matt Tarses.

Write to Joe Flint at [email protected]

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