Jamie Tarses, first female TV network entertainment head, dies at 56

Jamie Tarses
Jamie Tarses, seen in 2018, has died.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)

Jamie Tarses, who helped bring “Friends” to NBC and broke the glass ceiling in network TV when she became the top entertainment executive at ABC, died Monday after suffering complications from a cardiac event last fall. She was 56.

Tarses’ death was confirmed by her family.

She was among the young program development executives at NBC who helped create signature comedies such as “Friends” and “Frasier” that appealed to young, urban upscale viewers, which led the network to ratings dominance in the 1990s. In 1996, Michael Ovitz recruited Tarses to be president of ABC’s entertainment division, making her the first woman to hold that title.

Tarses, who was 32 when she took the job, had a tumultuous three-year run at ABC — at a time when it was still being absorbed into the Walt Disney Co., which had acquired the network a year before she arrived.


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During Tarses’ tenure at ABC, the network’s successes included hit sitcom “Dharma & Greg,” writer-producer Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” “The Practice” from David E. Kelley and “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” which introduced actor Ryan Reynolds.

Tarses left ABC in 1999 and went on to become an independent TV producer for a number of networks, turning out such shows as “Happy Endings,” “Franklin & Bash” and “My Boys.” She had a project in production for Disney+ called “The Mysterious Benedict Society.” She also produced “The Wilds” for Amazon Prime.

“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,” said Karey Burke, a friend and former colleague who now heads 20th Television.

“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.”

Jamie Tarses
Jamie Tarses answers questions at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in 1997.
(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)

William Morris Endeavor, which represented Tarses, called her “a pioneer in every sense” who always fought for strong creative work.


“She unabashedly loved television and was an executive who made writers feel safe and heard,” the agency said in a statement. “We will miss her greatly.”

Tarses was a consultant on another Sorkin show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a 2006 NBC drama set inside a “Saturday Night Live”-type sketch comedy show. Amanda Peet‘s portrayal of the character of Jordan McDeere, president of the fictional network where the show airs, was shaped by Tarses and her own experiences as a female executive in a male-dominated business.

Tarses preferred the creative process of production over the jockeying necessary to get ahead in the network hierarchy.

“The work is a blast,” she told the Los Angeles Times after her departure from ABC in 1999. “The rest of this nonsense I don’t need.”

Tarses was the daughter of Jay Tarses, a successful writer and producer known for the innovative 1980s TV series “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd” and “Buffalo Bill.” A 1997 New York Times profile indicated she likely inherited her independent streak from her father.

‘’My father hated executives,’’ Tarses said. ‘’He would say that they were hateful, horrible people who should be shot on sight.’’


Born in Pittsburgh in 1964, Tarses was a graduate of Williams College. She began her career in 1985 as an assistant at “Saturday Night Live” and later became a casting director at Lorimar. In 1987, she moved to NBC after she was hired by Brandon Tartikoff, then president of NBC Entertainment.

Tarses quickly developed strong relationships with actors and writers and was renowned for her ability to find and develop material, which led to her rise at the network.

She is survived by her partner, Paddy Aubrey, and their two children; her parents, Rachel and Jay; sister Mallory; and brother Matt Tarses, who is also a TV producer.