Jamie Tarses, the first-ever woman to oversee programming at a major broadcast network, died on Monday, the New York Times reports. Tarses was a television executive who developed and worked on some of the most significant broadcast programs in the ’90s, including Friends, Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Sports Night. After leaving NBC, Tarses worked as the president of entertainment at ABC—a company that one of Tarses’s colleagues described to the Times as a “snake pit” where “people spent more time trying to assassinate internal rivals than actually doing their jobs.”
The rampant and unchecked sexism Tarses faced in the workplace became public fodder in 1997, when the Times ran a lengthy piece on Tarses in which she, a 33-year-old woman at the time, was referred to as a “girl” repeatedly. Colleagues painted her not as a competent executive with a successful track record, but as a paranoid worrier waiting for the other shoe to drop:
Agents and studio heads and prominent producers and even employees of the Walt Disney Company, ABC’s parent corporation, have been predicting Tarses’ fall from the moment she got the job in June of last year.
The constant hum of criticism has clearly got to Tarses. She seems to trust no one and is tense nearly all the time. She worries about who’s saying what.
But it wasn’t Tarses’s worrying or some kind of newfound incompetence that brought her down at ABC—it was her gender:
The fact that Tarses is a woman, the first woman ever to be an entertainment chief at one of the big three networks, did not concern ABC, although, not surprisingly, her being a woman has turned out to be a complicating factor. ‘’It colors everything,’’ says one agent who insisted on anonymity because he knows Tarses well. ‘’This may sound sexist, but women are emotional and Jamie is particularly emotional. You think of her as a girl, and it changes how you do business with her. We’ll have a meeting and I can tell if she’s hurt by something, like I’ve wounded her personally. That doesn’t happen with Les Moonves at CBS’’ — that network’s entertainment chief — ‘’or Warren Littlefield at NBC. It’s just business with them. With Jamie, it’s more like dating.’’
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Les Moonves, who allegedly sexually assaulted 12 women while working at CBS, was somehow the professional yardstick Tarses was being measured against. Tarses left her prominent position at ABC in 1999 after two men were put in positions above her, a demotion by any other name. She found moderate success as a producer with the pilot of one of her shows, Happy Endings, being directed by the Russo brothers. But for the most part, she avoided the blinding spotlight that had followed her during her NBC and ABC years. A representative from her family told the Times that Tarses had suffered a stroke in the fall and her death was the result of “complications from a cardiac event.” She is survived by her partner and two children, along with an incomparable legacy of television development, the likes of which may never be matched on broadcast networks again.