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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / BRIAN LOWRY

Entertainment Unit at ABC Gets a New President

June 21, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY

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."

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.

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.

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.

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