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Entertainment Unit at ABC Gets a New President

ABC began a new chapter in one of the television industry’s most-watched executive sagas Thursday, announcing the appointment of 32-year-old Jamie Tarses as president of its entertainment division.

Tarses, a former top NBC executive, becomes the first woman ever to hold that position at one of the major networks, overseeing all of ABC’s prime-time programming.

After lengthy negotiations, ABC also kept current programming chief Ted Harbert, who was promoted to chairman of ABC Entertainment. Tarses will report to him. In a joint interview, Harbert called her hiring “a great step forward.”

Still, after four months of uncertainty about who’d be running the show, that declaration is unlikely to quell uneasiness at ABC Entertainment. Much of that is due to the circumstances surrounding Tarses’ recruitment, which was done without consulting Harbert. That prompted one executive to liken her hiring to “an arranged marriage.”

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The agreement is also expected to result in a number of staff changes at ABC Entertainment, especially within the program development ranks. That may include a shift in the division’s structure, though specific decisions will wait until after Tarses officially begins Monday.

Tremors will be felt outside the network as well. Tarses’ arrival promises to fuel acrimony between ABC and NBC, whose executives maintain that Michael Ovitz, president of ABC parent Walt Disney Co., and others took the low road in talking with Tarses while she was still under contract.

The Tarses negotiations set off a sort of corporate warfare with NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer stating publicly his intention to trounce ABC in retribution.

Under the realignment, Harbert, 41, who has been president of ABC Entertainment since January 1993, will directly supervise business and financial aspects of the entertainment division. He will also assume oversight of the company’s production partnerships with DreamWorks SKG, Brillstein-Grey Communications and Jim Henson Productions.

Tarses, an eight-year NBC veteran who oversaw all prime-time series development, will be responsible for development, production and scheduling of all prime-time programs, including series, movies and specials.

Whether Tarses would report to Harbert and what sort of independence she would have in programming decisions had been the main sticking points in the negotiations.

Sources say Harbert was embarrassed when he learned that ABC was courting Tarses before he had been told and by the lack of a strong endorsement from management after the story broke.

Both Harbert and Tarses, meanwhile, were recently miffed when it was reported that Disney Chairman Michael Eisner had approached Carsey-Werner Co. about an arrangement that would put its principals in charge of ABC Entertainment.

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The clumsy handling suggests to some that Eisner and Ovitz--both accustomed to running their own businesses--didn’t coordinate well.

Capital Cities/ABC Inc. President Robert Iger wouldn’t discuss individual roles in engineering the corporate shift but acknowledged Thursday that Tarses’ hiring was “an anxiety-producing experience, given that the story was so far ahead of itself.”

ABC’s executive ranks have been unsettled since February, when Disney and ABC first discussed having Tarses join the network.

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NBC subsequently let Tarses out of her contract on the condition that she not talk to potential employers until June 15--after the period in which network schedules are set and affiliate meetings held.

The events leading up to Thursday’s announcement created speculation that Harbert and Tarses wouldn’t get along, Harbert acknowledged. But the two insisted that they anticipate a solid working relationship and “share similar attitudes” about the business.

“Jamie and I are going to be a total team,” Harbert said. Having two people run an entertainment division is “nothing new and revolutionary,” he noted, adding that there is “more than enough to do for both of us.”

“In six weeks, it’ll be business as usual, or business as unusual,” said one veteran producer.

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The ABC announcement comes during a tumultuous period in the business. In what’s become almost an annual ritual, a game of executive musical chairs began after prime-time schedules for next season were set in May. Changes have already occurred at the TV divisions of Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Sony and CBS, and others are pending.

But the ABC Entertainment saga has been the talk of the town.

NBC calculated, probably correctly, that the long layoff would limit Tarses’ options and help destabilize ABC, whose ratings have been tumbling for months. As Disney and ABC executives gradually realized that they needed to keep Harbert, meanwhile, he made clear that he wouldn’t settle for a figurehead position.

In the end, Harbert won the point that Tarses would report to him. But in the new ABC under Disney rule, questions of autonomy go beyond the Harbert-Tarses relationship. Industry observers still wonder how much control anyone at ABC will really exercise over the long term dealing with hands-on managers like Eisner and Ovitz, who were intimately involved in putting together next season’s prime-time schedule.

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“You can’t say the words ‘autonomy’ and ‘Disney’ in the same sentence,” said one source.

Tarses’ ascent to such a position nevertheless seems likely to capture the industry’s imagination--especially for younger executives looking to move up in the executive ranks themselves.

In that respect, Tarses becomes one of the youngest people to assume such a post, joining a list that includes Brandon Tartikoff, Fred Silverman and Sandy Grushow, who all took analogous jobs in their early 30s.

Most industry observers say the structure, if awkward, is hospitable to Tarses: She gets a high-profile position without having to deal extensively with matters beyond her experience in developing programs. Those include interacting with advertisers, affiliates and the media, all aspects of the entertainment-division hot seat.

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Harbert, a 19-year ABC veteran, is well schooled in those areas. He guided the division through three straight first-place finishes in key demographics as well as to a household ratings win during the 1994-95 season, ABC’s first by that standard since the late 1970s.

In December, as Disney’s acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC closed, Harbert signed a three-year contract extension. Since then, however, a series of programming misfires, gradual aging of ABC’s lineup and NBC’s snowballing success have combined to produce a sudden ratings free fall at ABC.

Tarses would appear to complement him, having been involved with developing hit NBC comedies such as “Frasier” and “Friends.” Given the cyclical nature of the TV business, however, there’s a sense the network may have further to fall before it can begin a prime-time turnaround.

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Tarses is the consummate industry insider. Her father, Jay, is a veteran TV writer and producer who’s producing a CBS series for next season, “Public Morals,” through Steven Bochco’s company. Her ex-husband, Dan McDermott (whose name she recently dropped), is co-head of television at DreamWorks.

In addition to Tarses, ABC last year hired Michael Rosenfeld, 34, as senior vice president at ABC Entertainment. Rosenfeld worked under Ovitz as a television agent at Creative Artists Agency and will now report to Tarses.


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