She's Out Of Friends

Young, striking and powerful, Jamie Tarses has embodied the glamorous face of the media business since she was appointed president of ABC Entertainment three years ago. She had invented a new species of television show: souffle-light comedies peopled with stunning young apartment dwellers. She could have easily been a character on "Friends," the hit show she developed in an earlier stint at NBC. At ABC she quickly confirmed her reputation as a hit maker, green-lighting "Dharma & Greg" and "The Practice."

Despite her phenomenal success--she was 32 when she got the ABC job--Tarses has been dogged by stories about her volatile workplace behavior all along. She was politically clumsy with her bosses and prone to poor judgment. ABC quickly installed Stu Bloomberg, a seasoned ABC executive, as her boss, undercutting her position. Nights on the town with stars like Matthew Perry made her a gossip-column staple. And those repeated missteps prompted countless rumors of her imminent dismissal from ABC. Finally last week, in a denouement every bit as turbulent as her three-year tenure, Jamie Tarses's career as a network executive did come tumbling down. And by the end, Tarses embodied a larger story, one of chaos and turmoil at ABC. She believed her responsibilities were further eroded by a merger over the summer that forced her to report to a bitter rival--and confused Hollywood about ABC's chain of command. The messy affair is unfolding at the worst possible time for the embattled network, just weeks before the crucial fall season begins. ABC is mired in third place in the ratings and could use more hits. The broadcaster is being heavily scrutinized by corporate parent Walt Disney Co., which is under pressure to make its $19 billion acquisition of the network pay off. To save money, Disney has ordered layoffs and is moving much of ABC's operations from New York to L.A., adding to the sense of upheaval permeating the network.

When the end finally came for Tarses, now 35, it was abrupt. Last Monday NEWSWEEK's Web site, citing ABC and Disney executives, reported that the network was likely to ask for her resignation. Hours later in Los Angeles, however, Tarses's boss, ABC Group chairman Robert Iger, called the story "simply untrue." But on Wednesday Tarses resigned; on Thursday ABC publicly announced her departure. In an exclusive interview, Iger explained his apparent flip-flop by saying that he had seriously considered asking for her resignation, but decided against it during a meeting with Tarses. "It would not have been fair to fire her on the spot," Iger told NEWSWEEK.

Outsiders were stunned by the sloppy handling of the resignation and bitter infighting that is overwhelming ABC. Jon Mandel, head of the broadcasting department at Grey Advertising, said, "This would be the greatest media company if they realized the competition is across the street and not in the next office over.''

Tarses, who didn't return calls from NEWSWEEK, is reportedly relieved to be out of the executive suite. "I can't tell you how happy I am," she told the Los Angeles Times. "The work is a blast. The rest of this nonsense I don't need."

Tarses's undoing began with a hastily arranged merger over the summer. In July, Disney decided to combine ABC's television network with Disney's television-production studio. The idea was to place more shows made by Disney onto ABC's prime-time schedule. For Tarses, however, the reorganization was untenable, forcing her to report to Lloyd Braun, who headed Disney's TV studio. The restructuring reversed the power dynamic between Braun and Tarses. Before the revamping, Tarses had been a powerful customer, while Braun had pitched TV shows to her from his Disney post. Now he was her boss. Tensions were already simmering: insiders say that Disney felt that Tarses hadn't bought enough Disney-produced shows in past seasons. ("Once and Again" and "Wasteland" are the only new Disney shows in ABC's fall lineup.) For her part, Tarses complained that shows developed under Braun were unpolished.

Relations between the pair quickly became inflamed. Insiders say Tarses would barely acknowledge Braun if they passed in the hallway at ABC's Los Angeles office. They apparently bickered over which managers and staffers would be fired as a result of the consolidation. Tarses was said to have pressured suppliers doing business with ABC to deal only with her. Entertainment executives were appalled when Tarses would bad-mouth Braun to them, dissing the paltry number of shows he had sold to networks. Already aware of the tension between his top programmers, Iger expressed deep concern about Tarses's behavior after attending a meeting two weeks ago at Beverly Hills' swanky Peninsula Hotel. Tarses completely ignored Braun during the meeting. "It was absolutely clear this was a troubled relationship," Iger said.

Increasingly, Iger said, the fireworks were threatening the network's already troubled television operations. The development season, when networks are pitched new shows, was already in full swing. The three-headed power structure proved confusing to outsiders trying to sell their shows to ABC. At a recent industry gathering, Bloomberg, Tarses and Braun each claimed to have the authority to green-light shows for the network.

Iger says he became alarmed at reports of Tarses's increasingly volatile behavior. It "became more untenable," Iger said. Then, last Monday, Iger hopped a Disney jet from New York to Los Angeles to evaluate personally the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Tarses and her two bosses. Last Tuesday morning, Iger said, he met again with the three executives. "It was to confront them all and issue an edict," he said. "I laid down the law about what I expected: 'Enough of the bulls--t'." Iger said he gave them specific goals and marching orders. "If you don't think you can do it," he said he told them, "you've got decisions to make." He said he instructed them to get together without him and work things out. Braun and Bloomberg complied. Tarses, Iger said, didn't.

Iger was especially concerned that the warfare might be getting in the way of completing the merger. After all, that was a top priority of his boss, Disney CEO Michael Eisner. These days, Eisner's on the hot seat to turn around Disney's falling earnings and stock price. Among other steps, he is pushing tough cost-cutting measures throughout the company. By consolidating Disney's and ABC's TV units, the company will save more than $50 million a year on developing new shows in-house. In addition, if the revamping is successful, it could mean billions of dollars in future profits should more Disney shows become ABC hits.

Tarses's political blunders belie her pedigree in the entertainment business. Her father, Jay, was a successful TV writer and producer. In 1987, she got a job at NBC Productions and emerged as a star creative executive in the nine years she spent there. "Jamie is best in the sandbox that is creative," recalls Warren Littlefield, her former boss. "Writers enjoy working with her." In 1994, she oversaw the development of "Friends" and "NewsRadio," two wildly popular shows. When Disney acquired ABC in 1996, the network was scrambling for fresh hits. ABC was the No. 1 network when Disney announced the deal, but its ratings began to dive before the acquisition was completed. Before long, it had fallen to No. 3.

ABC soon began wooing Tarses, who was still under contract at NBC. Controversy began to surround her even before she officially started the new job. Stories swirled in the media that she had allegedly sought to end her obligations to NBC by claiming she was sexually harassed by the network's West Coast president. She arrived at ABC amid headlines hailing her as the first woman and youngest person ever to land atop a network's entertainment division. Tarses's every move was chronicled in a way more common to movie stars than network suits. The tabloids noted her amorous ties, with the New York Post catching her "lip-locking" with Matthew Perry, a star of "Friends." In 1997, a year after she joined ABC, speculation raged that the network would surely fire her for cooperating with a controversial New York Times Magazine story that proved embarrassing to ABC.

Some observers believe she's a victim of a quintessential Hollywood affliction: jealousy. Says Mandel, the Grey adver-tising executive: "She's pretty, smart, a daughter of the business. She's got money, drive, contacts, everything going for her, which is exactly why everyone guns for her." It doesn't help that she may be socially and politically immature, he says sympathetically. "When you're thrust into a job that is so big, you may do things that are of your chronological age, but not of your station in life."

Even with Tarses gone, many of Hollywood's powerful executives, lawyers, agents and spinmeisters say things re-main unstable at ABC. Several top agents, for example, say they believe Iger damaged his credibility by flatly denying she might be on her way out. Some wonder why Disney created a management lineup that seemed doomed from the start. Hollywood insiders say even the combination of the Disney and ABC television units seems like a bad idea, and some programming suppliers worry it will reduce their chances of selling shows to the network. What's more, several observers say, ABC remains too top-heavy with executives. Reacting to such observations, Iger is defiant, saying ABC's revamping "wasn't designed for the town to like." Besides, the Hollywood community loves to stir up trouble. "Hollywood smells blood better than anyplace I know," Iger said. But many in Hollywood are wondering if, post-Tarses, more blood will be spilled at ABC.