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ABC EXECUTIVES PUT A HAPPY FACE ON THE NETWORK'S INTERNAL STRIFE

Jenna Elfman, Harley Jane Kozak and Annie Potts are the women whom ABC wishes that critics focused on during the TV press tour.

They're all in new ABC situation comedies, and the network needs a big hit after a disappointing 1996-97 season.

However, the woman who has been given most of the attention is Jamie Tarses, who isn't exactly a household word except in media circles.

"Who is Jamie Tarses?" joked comedian Paula Poundstone at a press conference for ABC's children's programming. Critics packed the session, assuring themselves a seat to the interview that followed.

Poundstone was speaking for middle America, which may not know the difference between Jamie Tarses and Jamie Buchman of "Mad About You."

Tarses is the president of ABC Entertainment, whose one-year reign has been a more interesting soap opera than the saga surrounding the Buffalo Sabres since General Manager Darcy Regier was hired and former coach Ted Nolan declined an insulting one-year offer to stay.

On Wednesday morning, Tarses sat alongside Stu Bloomberg, the newly appointed chairman of ABC Entertainment who was brought in to supervise Tarses. Since Bloomberg's hiring and a revealing New York Times piece on Tarses that had her predecessor saying that she was "hated" in Hollywood, Tarses' future at ABC has been the subject of speculation. One report had her asking a lawyer to negotiate her departure.

Though she isn't a household name, her story has elements of power struggles, sexism and ageism that someday could be made into a good TV movie. That's if the truth ever comes out.

It was hard to discern Wednesday. Those critics who expected fireworks had to be sadly disappointed as the two sat side by side and denied any tension. They won't get any Emmy nominations when they're announced today, but Tarses' and Bloomberg's performance was greeted with some skepticism.

Essentially, Tarses' wounded pride was repaired after Bloomberg was hired, and she has taken the kind of offer that Nolan rejected to see if she and her new boss can make a good team.

"We're here primarily to talk about the shows and not the Show," said Bloomberg. "This is our statement. We are sitting here together and it's been a happy three weeks. It's really great. We're having a really good time."

"I am staying at ABC," said Tarses, wearing a gray suit and looking more composed than she was a year earlier when she first spoke to critics. "I am deeply committed and very, very excited."

Critics made a Herculean effort to get Tarses and Bloomberg to change their stories, but the two executives never budged. Asked if she felt as if she had lost power, Tarses said unconvincingly: "Quite frankly, I don't think I've lost anything. I really feel that I've gained, and it's reinvigorated me and, I think, us."

After the Tarses sideshow was addressed, she and Bloomberg did get some questions about the shows and the issues.

Bloomberg noted that he had been in his new office only briefly when he received a call from NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield.

"He said, 'We'd like ABC to get behind us in the ratings,' and I'm thinking we are," cracked Bloomberg. Littlefield was talking about ratings content, not prime-time ratings.

Unlike NBC, ABC supports the new letter codes and Bloomberg doesn't feel it will influence his network's program content.

"After all, we did put 'NYPD Blue' on five years ago," said Bloomberg.

Asked about the future of "Ellen," Tarses praised the show's lesbian story line and said at some point she expects lead character Ellen Morgan to date, but added it wasn't an immediate plan.

Bloomberg denied published reports that ABC has already made a deal to bring back "Something So Right," which NBC canceled. However, he added that he liked the show.

Like the Sabres situation, it could take six months to see if the Jamie and Stu Show is something so right or just another network charade.

One of the Hollywood writer-producers whom Tarses has upset is David E. Kelley, creator of the critically acclaimed spring law series "The Practice." Its reruns return to the schedule at 10 p.m. Saturday.

Kelley acknowledged here that he was guilty of behaving like a child when he was told the series was being sentenced to the deadly Saturday slot.

Asked if he was happy now, Kelley said: "Well, happiness is a very relative term. . . . I made up my mind that if I was going to say anything negative here I would say it about myself. So I would say that I am disgusted. I'm a disgusted person."

Kelley's tongue was firmly in cheek. But at least it wasn't tied.

Asked if he would devote more attention to a new Fox series, Kelley said: "The truth is, I stomped around with my little bat and ball and said, 'Oh, I'm not going to play anymore.' But the other truth is that they probably didn't believe that because they knew that I cared about the show and after all the dust settled, I would come back."

His star, Dylan McDermott, added: "No matter where they put us -- and I think they made a horrible mistake -- an audience will come because of David's writing, first of all, and because of this great cast."

The cast is increasing by one -- Lara Flynn Boyle of "Twin Peaks." She is playing an assistant district attorney.

ABC held seven original episodes of "The Practice" for this fall, so Boyle will have to be inserted in some of them for continuity purposes. Eventually she'll be the love interest of McDermott's character, lawyer Bobby Donnell.

"The personal lives were not focused on as much with the characters and that coincides with a network desire to get more into Bobby's personal life," said Kelley. "And the way to do that was to develop a love interest for him."

While the Saturday slot is a bummer, at least Kelley was given a guarantee of 22 episodes. Not that ABC was being generous to him. He just had a good lawyer.

"Well, contractually, they had to, so it was never a question of generosity," said Kelley.

If things don't go well for Tarses in the next six months, she might consider giving Kelley's lawyer a ring.

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