For a company that’s supposed to be about family values, Disney sure likes shotgun marriages.
Just one year after Disney-owned ABC failed to create a programming partnership between Jamie Tarses and the now-departed Ted Harbert, the network will try again. This time, ABC president Robert Iger is teaming entertainment president Tarses with Stu Bloomberg, a New York-based president of TV creative services who will move back to L.A. Well, teaming is a nice way of putting it; as the new chairman of entertainment, he’s obviously above Tarses.
While executive shuffles in Hollywood are as common as bad sitcoms, this isn’t just any old shake-up. Considered a wunderkind program developer at NBC (credited with shepherding Friends, Mad About You, and Frasier), Tarses, 33, became the most controversial, gossiped-about, and first female network entertainment president ever when ABC hired her a year ago. With her embarrassing shift to second in command, Tarses’ detractors are happily crowing their I-told-you-sos: She was a hardball exec who finally got her comeuppance, the prime example of Hollywood’s tendency to promote too fast and too soon. Her backers claim she was a fall guy who never had a chance to prove what she can do.
This is the heated debate occupying the TV industry (this week, anyway). And anti-Tarses campers have plenty of grounded-in-reality arguments.
Fact: ABC ratings are in free fall. The Alphabet was in first place in 1995, when Disney bought the network; now it’s third, thanks to last season, which saw only modest new hits (Spin City; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), the aging of veterans (Home Improvement, NYPD Blue), and a pricey flop (Arsenio).
Fact: There is no imminent sign of improvement; after previewing ABC’s fall schedule in May, the advertising community wasn’t optimistic about the net’s chances. In launching 10 new shows, and given the very competitive market, ABC faces ”a huge challenge,” says Zenith Media executive VP Betsy Frank, whose annual handicapping of debuting series is widely respected. Most of the fall shows, she believes, are long shots at best.
Fact: Tarses overstepped her power, ordering series without getting the required approval from Iger. After he made her rescind two mid-season shows, one exec claims she briefly stopped returning his calls.
Fact: Relationships with several key producers — including Carsey-Werner (Roseanne, Grace Under Fire), Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), David E. Kelley (The Practice), and Wind Dancer Productions (Home Improvement) — have deteriorated during her reign, and Iger (who used to head entertainment before rising to his current post) was forced to mend fences. ”Jamie can be ruthless,” says one studio exec who’s had run-ins with her. Last winter, ABC was embarrassed when NYPD Blue star Dennis Franz lashed out at execs during a press party; he’d just learned, secondhand, that his show was going on hiatus to make way for The Practice. ”She didn’t give people the respect they deserve,” says a former colleague, who adds, ”There are right and wrong ways to say no.” Tarses, he feels, wasn’t a leader by example.