ABC woos the TV exec behind NBC's ''Friends'' and ''Frasier''

By A.J. Jacobs
May 10, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Before she helped Friends conquer the world, before she got swept up in one of Hollywood’s most titillating showdowns, before she ignited an Armani-suited feud between two networks, Jamie McDermott was already the stuff of showbiz lore. Jamie McDermott: She fired her father!

Well, not exactly fired. More like declined to hire him. Still. It happened in 1991, when McDermott was a junior executive at NBC. In walked her legendary dad, Jay Tarses, the razor-witted creator of Buffalo Bill, with hopes of selling Baltimore, a pilot about jazz musicians. After the show was screened, the lights came up, and Tarses scanned the room of some 15 Peacock execs. ”Let’s start with you, Jamie,” he said. ”What did you think?”

”Well, Dad,” McDermott said, ”it’s not your best work.”

Such cojones! And they’ve gotten McDermott far. At the ripe old age of 31, the L.A. native is one of the most powerful women in network TV. But her bravado has also landed her smack in the middle of a soap opera — a real-life season finale that rivals Melrose Place for intrigue and hormonal high jinks.

If you haven’t been tuned to the right channel, here’s a plot summary. Five months ago, Jamie McDermott was NBC’s golden child — an aggressive, whip-smart TV exec drooled over by the media. As senior vice president in charge of prime-time series, she was the network spark plug with such blue-chip shows as Frasier, NewsRadio, and Friends under her belt.

But in mid-February, NBC suits made a startling move: They announced McDermott was on hiatus until June while she considered a job offer. The carrot: president of ABC Entertainment. NBC’s action made sense. After all, the network was plotting its fall lineup, and it didn’t want McDermott around if she was going to jump ship. Yet in the following weeks, a juicier rumor emerged. McDermott, tempted by the job of a lifetime, had allegedly asked to be released from her two-year contract with NBC, citing inappropriate behavior by her NBC boss, West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, a hard-drinking, unrepentant good ol’ boy. The network reportedly stuck by Ohlmeyer.

Sources close to McDermott deny that she ever raised the issue of sexual harassment. (McDermott herself won’t comment because of a confidentiality agreement with NBC.) Depending on whom you talk to, she wanted out of her contract because of everything from job ennui to a power struggle with Ohlmeyer.

What actually transpired between McDermott and Ohlmeyer — who turned down a request for an interview — will keep the grapevine buzzing for years to come. Meantime, the focus has shifted from damaging speculation about Ohlmeyer to questions about the wunderkind’s rocket rise.

One thing is clear: McDermott can swim with the sharks. Just ask her enemies. ”She scares the s— out of a lot of people,” complains one comedy writer. ”She intimidates. She has a very regal air.” Her friends will tell you she’s simply as tough as her male counterparts. Says Friends creator Marta Kauffman: ”A man can be strong, opinionated, but when a woman is these things, it’s watch out for Jamie, she’s a witch!”