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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER and SALLIE HOFMEISTER

Tabloids' Obsession With the ABC Exec Rewrites the Script : Tarses Saga Redefines Frenzy

July 29, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER and SALLIE HOFMEISTER

It's Jamie mania!

Ever since becoming president of ABC Entertainment a year ago, Jamie Tarses has gripped the media and Hollywood--underscoring the celebrity status of top entertainment executives and business leaders.

These days, even the New York tabloids would just as soon run dishy items about "Jamie"--as she has been referred to by one publication--as they would about the steamy love lives of Brad Pitt or Madonna.

Surely, executives at Tarses' rank deserve scrutiny because of the enormous power they wield over television programming. Entertainment chiefs typically pick what scripts to develop and the programs that ultimately get on the air. Producers in Hollywood live and die by their decisions.

Said one TV watcher not associated with the industry: "Network executives have more effect on my daily life than the secretary of state."

Yet the level of coverage of Tarses seems to have exceeded historical standards to the point that even detractors who have relished in her negative press have been saying, "Enough."

A recent cover story in the New York Times magazine about Tarses' rapid rise and fall just added fuel--and credence--to a national press frenzy. The New York Post even sent a reporter to Los Angeles for the day to cover Tarses' first public appearance last week with her new boss, Stuart Bloomberg, the recently installed chairman of ABC Entertainment.

"The Times' magazine piece set up the possibility that her job was in danger, so the media felt compelled to close the door on the issue," said Robert Giles, executive director of the Media Studies Center at Columbia University. "Lots of this seems inside baseball--written for the people in the business. But there is a certain interest in her youth and gender amid these middle-aged white guys running ABC."

Even Tarses seems nonplused by the spectacle. Though she would not comment for this article, she was recently quoted as saying that the media interest in her job had taken on "truly surreal proportions" and that "I don't understand why it's stayed such a prominent topic . . . it just doesn't seem warranted. I'm a network president. It's a job."

Why has this 33-year-old network executive become the entertainment industry's latest obsession?

Sure, there's the gender factor. She's young and attractive--the first woman ever to head a major network's entertainment division.

But her newsworthiness, or perceived newsworthiness, goes beyond that.

Regardless of gender, it's a great crash and burn story by Hollywood standards. Some entertainment executives are convinced that the fascination lies in the personal issues: That her downfall stemmed from her arrogance and naivete, reliance on bad advisors and that she was ill-prepared for the job she took.

People relish when the mighty fall. Witness Mike Ovitz.

They may relish it even more when that someone has had all the breaks--Tarses' father is a successful television producer.

Indeed, her story has all the elements of a juicy TV movie. There's a father who, for Tarses' whole life, has berated network executives, an ex-husband who got his job as head of television at DreamWorks SKG after she had turned it down and advisors who include former super-agent Ovitz and his good pal Robert Morton, a former executive producer for David Letterman who, until recently, was Tarses' boyfriend.

Even her boss, ABC Inc. President Robert Iger said of the matter last week, "It's a highly charged story."

The lead-in to Lynn Hirschberg's New York Times story did its share of name-dropping to draw in readers, advertising itself as: "A prime-time drama about sex and power in the age of network decline. Starring Michael Ovitz, Robert Iger, Stu Bloomberg and Michael Eisner. With Steven Bochco, Roseanne and Kevin Nealon. And introducing a young network executive who never knew what hit her."

Before being hired by ABC last June, Tarses--who previously went by her married name McDermott--was virtually unknown outside Hollywood as the No. 2 executive at NBC Entertainment to President Warren Littlefield.

Other than being mentioned in stories about her producer father Jay Tarses and about Hollywood's up-and-comers, Tarses went under the radar.

She moved into the limelight when Ovitz, then president of Walt Disney Co., lured her away from NBC while she still had 18 months left on her contract. At NBC, she had helped develop such hot shows as "Friends" and "Mad About You."

Insiders contend that she and Ovitz devised a way to extricate her from her contract by letting it be known that she might accuse NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer of sexual harassment. The Tarses story blew up when the charges were leaked to the press and Ohlmeyer referred to Ovitz, whom he believed was the culprit, as the "anti-Christ."

Many at NBC still believe that Ovitz's maneuver was aimed as much at destabilizing the leading network as in hiring its top development chief.

Yet at least in part because of the circumstances of her recruitment, the story never died. Tarses added steam by her chumminess with Morton, a figure on the New York social circuit. That made her grist for gossip columnists. That ABC struck a production contract with Morton just weeks after Tarses became president and that she lobbied other ABC executives heavily on his behalf, smacked of poor judgment.

In some ways, the coverage is another example of the changing tone, some say the tabloidization, of the mainstream press that began with the O.J. Simpson trial.

"If you look at how we cover politics, character and personality are part of the story," Giles said. "The same goes for sports stars and business people. There's a public appetite for it."

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