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Strange reign of Jamie Tarses at ABC comes to a sudden end

The first woman ever to head the programming department at one of the Big Three networks recently resigned, ending one of those strange, true-life odysseys that -- if it were presented as TV fiction -- would be dismissed as utterly unbelievable.

Jamie Tarses threw in the towel at Disney-owned ABC last week, resigning her post as president of ABC Entertainment after some three years on the job. Which was about 2 1/2 years longer than most observers expected her to last.Tarses came over from NBC, where she was credited with helping to develop hits like "Friends." But her arrival was controversial, and not only because, at 33, she seemed rather young for the job.

Rumors swirled that Tarses had obtained a release from her contract at the Peacock network by threatening to charge then-NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer with sexual harassment. (It was not the only unconfirmed report of that type that involved Ohlmeyer.) The situation got so nasty that, at one point, Ohlmeyer referred to then-Disney president Michael Ovitz as "the anti-Christ."

It wasn't pretty, but it was amusing.

Tarses' reign at ABC didn't exactly get off to a rousing start. The network's ratings worsened, although it could be argued that it wasn't her fault -- that she inherited a deteriorating schedule that would take time to repair. Still, she came close to quitting about a year after she took the job when Stu Bloomberg was named chairman of ABC Entertainment -- effectively giving Tarses a new boss and dropping her down a rung in the hierarchy.

Of course, she came close to losing her job over one of the dumber moves ever made by a network programmer. She granted a reporter from the New York Times unprecedented access during the hectic period leading up to the May schedule announcement, and the resulting story was a bit too frank for her own good.

She was quoted making rather nasty comments about her boss, ABC Chairman Bob Iger, among other things. And an unofficial "Jamie Watch" began, with either a resignation or a firing expected at almost any moment.

The story also contained a quote from former ABC Entertainment president and later chairman Ted Harbert -- who quit shortly after Tarses was brought aboard over his objections -- calling her "the most hated woman in Hollywood."

The situation reached a fever pitch -- not to mention high degrees of unintentional humor -- during ABC's portion of the 1997 Television Critics Association summer press tour, when Tarses could be seen rushing through the halls of the hotel with a cell phone stuck in her ear as she attempted to blow past critics.

It didn't help that she had signed former "Late Show with David Letterman" executive producer Robert Morton to a lucrative production deal and included a stunningly bad sitcom he produced on ABC's schedule while in the midst of a personal relationship with him.

Morton rather wisely ducked meeting with critics that summer. Tarses, on the other hand, had no choice.

A major portion of the executives' press conference that July was devoted to Tarses insisting that she wasn't going to quit and she didn't think she'd get fired.

Surprisingly enough, she was right.

ABC's fortunes improved somewhat, although the past three years haven't exactly been glory days for the network. There were a couple of hits, but about the only unqualified success that Tarses introduced was the sitcom "Dharma & Greg."

Not a great track record.

Much to the surprise of many, Bloomberg and Tarses forged a working relationship that worked. After her initial misgivings, she seemed content to let him deal with many of the business ends of the business while she focused on the creative end. But she remained controversial. In the wake of her resignation, she has been described by some as "intensely private."

Which begs the question as to why an "intensely private" woman would allow herself to be seen making out with the much-younger star of "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," Ryan Reynolds, at a press function attended by more than 100 TV critics.

It did, however, provide an explanation for why the immensely mediocre "Two Guys" remained on ABC's schedule. And caused some wags to tag the network's upcoming sitcom "Then Came You" -- which is about a mid-30s woman who gets involved with an early-20s man -- as "The Jamie Tarses Story."

What finally did Tarses in at ABC, however, was another bit of corporate shifting -- and the resulting addition of one more chef for the ABC Entertainment stew. A mandate that reportedly came right from the office of Disney chairman Michael Eisner combined ABC Entertainment with Disney's Buena Vista Productions with the goal of ABC/Disney owning more of the shows on the network's schedule.

Tarses didn't have a lot to say about her resignation, but she did issue a statement saying that it was because of "competitive changes at ABC" caused by "sweeping changes in the entertainment industry."

(It's called "vertical integration" -- when one company owns the shows, the network, the stations, etc.)

The newly formed ABC Entertainment Group brought former Buena Vista president Lloyd Braun aboard as co-chairman, along with Bloomberg, and effectively gave Tarses yet another boss. And a boss that she was far from being crazy about.

At a recent appearance before TV critics, Tarses and Braun had all the rapport of a snake and a mongoose. They seemed determined not to even look at one another, which fit perfectly with reports that the two loathed one another.

Of course, all network programming chiefs are hired to be fired. The average term in office over the past decade has been just about three years -- meaning that Tarses' reign in terms of longevity was just about average.

Not that much of anything else about it was.

Not surprisingly, ABC has no plans to replace Tarses anytime soon. Bloomberg and Braun will function as co-chairmen of both the network's programming and production departments.

Don't worry about Tarses, however. Old network executives never die. They simply land big-bucks production deals.