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Finding Out What 'Friends' Can Do for You

Television: Jamie McDermott helped develop NBC's hot new comedy. Now ABC is eyeing her for a top programming position.

February 26, 1996|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You won't find her nude on the cover of Rolling Stone (a la Jennifer Aniston), and you won't find cookbooks, calendars or T-shirts with her picture. But the NBC hit "Friends" has gotten by with more than a little help from Jamie McDermott.

McDermott, 31, the senior vice president of prime-time series for the No. 1 network, is cited as one of the main forces behind the development of the hip situation comedy and also has been called one of NBC's savviest executives in terms of knowing the mind-set of young-adult audiences and connecting with hot writers and producers. The success of "Friends," which has become a cultural phenomenon, is regarded as one of McDermott's greatest triumphs.

And now it seems like the magic of "Friends," which has turned its previously low-profile cast into million-dollar media stars, is rubbing off on McDermott, who found herself last week caught between a hot network and a cold one.

NBC granted her a four-month leave of absence as she pursues negotiations that could put her into the top programming position at struggling ABC. Although no contract has been signed and McDermott's future at both networks is unclear, she has become the hot topic of the month as TV insiders contemplate whether she will become the first woman to be named president of a network entertainment division.

The status of current ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert is still up in the air, with sources saying he could be moved up in the corporate ladder if McDermott signs on. Harbert has come under fire for ABC's stumble in the prime-time ratings, with no new hits in the past two years.

The commotion surrounding McDermott marks the second time in less than a year that she has been targeted by a major entertainment entity. Reports that the new DreamWorks studio was courting McDermott to head up its television division last year resulted in NBC giving her an extended contract and more responsibility in overseeing the network's comedy and drama development.

The DreamWorks position eventually went to her husband, Dan McDermott, from whom she is separated.

McDermott's admirers praise her political astuteness in dealing with executives and the creative community, her canny sense of knowing what will tickle young funny bones, her honesty and politeness with producers, her extraordinary determination and her ability to know when to back off when writers and producers start developing a viable vision.

"She's got a good sense of what is funny and, more importantly, she says what she means," said producer Jane Milmore. "She's very specific."

Her ability to connect with young writers and producers has helped lure top talent to NBC. In addition to "Friends," she is credited with overseeing the development of "NewsRadio," "Frasier" "Mad About You," "Wings"' and this season's "Caroline in the City" and "The Single Guy," part of NBC's dominant Thursday-night lineup.

"There is just something very clear about Jamie," a studio executive said. "Some have that undefinable something and some don't, and Jamie really has it. She conducts herself like a star, and people respond accordingly. She carries herself in a way that lets everyone know that she has the ability to make the decisions that make the deals."

Insiders say she is almost the exact opposite of the "Friends" characters, who tend to be less than successful in their careers.

"Jamie is very aggressive, and very aggressive is what's playing well right now in the new Hollywood," said one prominent entertainment attorney who asked not to be identified. "The wave of the future may be a little less of the ivory tower mentality of the networks, and may be turning toward young creative forces connected to hot young writers and talent."

He added: "She has very strong opinions about what works and what doesn't, and she's not afraid to tell anyone. That is really something, since many producers don't like to be told what to do by a 31-year-old."

McDermott declined to comment for this story, but in a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, she said of her job:

"What we look for here are reliability, distinctive characters and a strong point of view that's going to apply to a lot of people, and you've got to want these people in your living room. It's my job to facilitate the writers and producers we hire and sort of guide them along so that they will create and produce hit shows."

McDermott is also praised as a hands-on executive who is smart enough not to tamper unreasonably with writers and producers, giving them the freedom to develop their ideas.

"She is secure enough to let the creative people do their thing," said producer Billy Van Zandt, who worked with partner Milmore on an NBC series that ultimately never got on the air. "There are not a lot of secure people in that position. They try to fix things that aren't broken."

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