Raised in Los Angeles, Tarses was the daughter of successful TV writer and producer Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show, Buffalo Bill, The Carol Burnett Show, among others), which clearly influenced her own career choice. After graduating Williams College with a degree in Theater, she took a job as the assistant to the casting director of Saturday Night Live. After a year she became the casting director for Lorimar Productions, finding talent for the show Perfect Strangers. And just a year after that, she was hired by NBC as the Manager of Creative Affairs, helping to develop a variety of shows, including Friends, Mad About You, Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Wings, and Mayim Bialik’s Blossom. Naturally Tarses earned promotion after promotion until 1996, when she accepted an offer to be the president of ABC Entertainment — the first woman to ever be the president of a major network, and at 32 the second-youngest such executive ever — only her NBC mentor Brandon Tartikoff beat that, when he was 31. Time from graduating college to that achievement: 11 years. “At a time when all of the big networks were losing young viewers,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, “Ms. Tarses seemed to speak the language of that coveted audience. She had what is known in TV programming parlance as ‘taste’.” Tarses sort-of agreed: “The shows I helped develop are the shows I want to watch, the shows I will show up at home for.”
It helped that Tarses had guts, too. In 1991, when still a junior executive at NBC, her father pitched a new show to the brass there. After the lights came up from his presentation, Jay Tarses singled her out from the 15 or so executives and asked, “Let’s start with you, Jamie. What did you think?” She replied, “Well, Dad, it’s not your best work” — and the network passed on the show. She’s the sort of role model storytellers like: the network executive character Jordan McDeere on the 2006–2007 NBC show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was modeled on her. But ABC became “a case study in dysfunctional corporate relationships,” the WSJ wrote, when Disney decided to merge ABC with its Buena Vista Television in 1999. She resigned to be an independent producer. “I just don’t want to play anymore,” she said at the time. “The work is a blast. The rest of this nonsense I don’t need.” Tarses “had smarts, drive, family connections, money, the mentor everyone wished they had, very good looks, absolutely everything going for her,” said TV ad-buyer Jon Mandel. “That automatically created jealousy and resentment.”
She continued to have a blast, as executive producer for My Boys, Mr. Sunshine, Happy Endings, Franklin & Bash and The Wilds, among others. In her off time she served on the board of directors for the non-profit Young Storytellers, and volunteered at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Jamie was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word,” said Karey Burke, President of 20th Television. “She shattered stereotypes and ideas about what a female executive could achieve, and paved the way for others, at a cost to herself.” Part of that cost was, in late 2020 Tarses had a severe stroke, which left her in a coma. She never regained consciousness, and died on February 1 at 56.