A Newsweek story reporting that ABC is likely to request the resignation of entertainment division President Jamie Tarses was posted on the magazine's Web site yesterday. Within minutes, the story set off a frenzy of phone calls in Hollywood's TV-industry offices.
The report alleged that ABC Group President Robert Iger was scheduled to meet with Tarses this week and that the Disney-owned network was "likely to request the resignation of Jamie Tarses as president of the network's Entertainment Group." Newsweek cited senior executives at the network and parent Walt Disney Co.
But late yesterday, after four hours of industry speculation, Iger issued a statement denying the report. "It is simply untrue," he said through a spokesman.
It was not the first time that the media have forecast Tarses' demise. Her three-year tenure with the network has provided trade publications with melodramas that have been even more riveting than many of the dramas she has developed.
When Tarses was first courted for ABC--by Michael Ovitz, former uber-agent and then president of Walt Disney Co.--she was one of the TV industry's hottest talents: a young programming executive on the rise at NBC, specializing in the development of the youth-seeking comedies, like "Friends" and "Frasier," that put NBC back on top in the ratings race. Though Tarses still had time left on her NBC contract, the network released her. But her triumph as the youngest person and the first woman ever to take over a network entertainment operation was lessened somewhat by news reports alleging that she had cited sexual harassment by an NBC executive in order to win her release.
Coming over to ABC as entertainment division president at the start of the 1996-97 TV season, Tarses was expected to be the network's top programming exec. Instead, ABC named the man she replaced, Ted Harbert, to the new title of chairman at ABC Entertainment, with Tarses reporting to him. After about six months of that strained relationship, Harbert resigned in February 1997. After the network finished the 1996-97 TV season in third place and down significantly from the previous season, ABC brought in longtime programming executive Stu Bloomberg and gave him the chairman title--breeding more speculation that Tarses would walk.
Then just last month, Disney announced that it was merging its television production operation, including Buena Vista TV, into ABC under a newly formed ABC Entertainment TV Group. Two executives were named to head it: Bloomberg and Buena Vista Chairman Lloyd Braun. That bumped Tarses down to No. 3--which put her right back at the level she was at when she left NBC. That, and news that ABC would downsize its entertainment division immediately, prompted more questions about Tarses' future at the network.
Tarses could not be reached for comment yesterday. The Newsweek Web site reported yesterday that ABC may settle the remainder of Tarses' multi-year contract by offering her a production deal, which is standard practice in Hollywood when removing a TV executive. A well-placed source says her contract is up in June of 2001.
Meanwhile, Harbert, a 20-year ABC veteran, has been named president of NBC's in-house television production division. He will oversee development and production of in-house-produced programming for prime time, daytime, Saturday morning and late night. Harbert is a high-profile hire for the division, which is becoming increasingly important to the network as the Hollywood studios focus on supplying their own television networks with programming.
"In-house production has become more important because, while there is a need and desire at NBC to be in business with all the studios and to get the best product they have, we all have to be mindful that most of those other studios have networks to supply themselves," Harbert said. "So we have to make sure, given that none of us knows what will happen in the next few years, that there is a flow of product from the inside."
NBC Studios has had a good run of late, producing last season's highest-rated new sitcom, "Will & Grace," and highest-rated new drama series, "Providence."
Harbert, a well-respected executive in the Hollywood television community, has spent the last 2 1/2 years as a producer at DreamWorks SKG, serving as executive producer on ABC's since-canceled "Arsenio" and "It's Like, You Know . . .," which begins its second season on the network next month.
Shepard Smith has been named anchor of the Fox News Channel's evening newscast "The Fox Report," airing Mondays through Fridays from 7 to 8 p.m. Smith starts Sept. 13. Smith is taking over for Paula Zahn, who's moving to the 10 p.m. slot vacated by Catherine Crier; Crier exited the network to head to Court TV.
Smith will continue to anchor portions of the cable network's daytime news lineup "Fox News Now." He's been with FNC since it was launched in '96, starting as a correspondent from Fox's affiliate news service. Before joining Fox News, Smith was a news reporter for the syndicated show "A Current Affair," distributed by Twentieth Television, which, like Fox News Channel, is owned by Rupert Murdoch-headed NewsCorp.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume plans to pick one of the four major broadcast networks to boycott during the November sweeps. Mfume was in Los Angeles late last week, meeting with programming suits from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. He has not yet announced which network will be targeted for his tune-out campaign.
Mfume could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in an interview with the nationally syndicated TV show "Entertainment Tonight," Mfume said that his complaint isn't just about their lack of minority representation in front of the camera, but in the executive suites as well. "[T]he larger problem is that the four major networks don't have people of color as executives," he told "ET."
He also told "ET" that the NAACP has bought stock on all of the networks' parent companies and, as shareholders, "we expect to be at those meetings raising these questions."