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Q & A with JAMIE TARSES

'I Want ABC to Seem Young, Smart and Inclusive'

July 29, 1996|SALLIE HOFMEISTER and BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Jamie Tarses took up her new post last month as president of ABC Entertainment amid unusual circumstances that could compound her challenges in turning the network's prime-time schedule around.

Still remaining as a Hollywood curiosity is how Tarses will get along with her boss, Ted Harbert, who was bumped up to chairman of ABC Entertainment as Tarses assumed his title as president.

ABC's new owners at the Walt Disney Co. had pursued Tarses to run the prime-time operation without informing Harbert, who was tipped off by an NBC executive. There were also questions about how Tarses broke free of her contract with NBC in the middle of development season and only months into a new contract putting her in charge of all drama and comedy development. At NBC, she worked on such blockbusters as "Friends" and "Frasier."

With ABC trailing NBC in the ratings, Tarses was on the stump with television critics gathered for their annual convention in Pasadena last Friday. Then, in one of her first interviews since taking over ABC's schedule, Tarses spoke about the attention she has drawn, her position as one of the youngest programming chiefs (and the only woman to hold that job at one of the three major networks), how she will make an imprint at ABC and her relationship with Harbert.

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Question: There is some fascination with you having this job at the age of only 32. Has that been overwhelming, and what are you going to do for an encore 10 years from now?

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Answer: The good news is that I never really look that far ahead, so I don't have to stress out about it. But retirement seems viable at 42 for me.

It is astounding how much focus and interest there has been in me having this job. I'm a very private person and have no interest in the spotlight. It's hard for me being seen taking credit for all these shows. I'm not a person who takes credit for things. I don't want credit for things. These shows work because of the writers. I facilitate and give them input. But I'm always leery of executives who take credit for things. The writers can do it without me, but I can't do it without them.

It has been a wild few months, but the good thing for me is that now it's about the work. That's what I like to do and that's what we're going to talk about now--not about me being young or me being a woman. I've never been denied any opportunity as a woman and there are a lot of women below my level having a lot of success. There isn't a lot of discrimination anymore. I've never viewed it as a boys' club that I could be excluded from.

Q: If this opportunity hadn't presented itself, could you have seen yourself happily staying at NBC, essentially in the same capacity you were in for a couple of years?

A: That's a good question. I could definitely have stayed for another year. I don't know how long I would have stayed or what would have transpired, because this transpired. But I was enjoying my job. I loved working with those guys. An opportunity comes along and you do the pros and cons, and ultimately the reasons for not taking the job are fear and the fear of change.

Q: Does being your age give you greater insight into the demographic that's now hot? Is that a factor in your rise?

A: Luckily for me, my sensibilities happen to be in sync with the desirable demographic right now. But I would like to think when I'm 40, I would still understand what 25- and 30-year-olds want to watch on TV. There are plenty of 40-year-olds who understand it. Obviously, because it is what I live, there is no question that I understand it and it has to make it easier or more instinctual for me.

But there are other factors. I have worked hard. I have had success. I work well with writers. ABC knew that about me--that my presence hopefully attracts good writers.

My philosophy of the career I've had is that all I did every day was come to work and do my job. I never ever thought about what was next. I love the work. I love working with writers. I love developing shows. It's an amazing thing that happens. I never thought I would be a network president. In fact, the only consistent thing about me in my entire life was my conviction that I would never be a network president. I was very focused on what I was doing and I think that has to account for why I ended up here.

Q: Was it something of a disappointment that you are not running the network in its entirety?

A: It's not a disappointment. First of all, it was an arranged marriage. But Ted and I are having a great time and I really do believe in the virtue of a collaborative environment. It helps you solidify your thinking. The dynamic between Ted and I works out. Both of us welcome the other's opinion and insight. It's not about what you can and can't do.

Q: The new fall prime-time schedule was set by the time you joined. What changes do you anticipate making in shows and what impact have you already had?

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