* Source says Zucker to be named CNN president next week
* CNN ratings hit 21-year low in Q2
* Rivals' popularity rises with more opinion, commentary
Nov 27 (Reuters) - Jeff Zucker, a former head of NBCUniversal and the producer of Katie Couric's talk show, will be named president of Time Warner Inc's ratings-starved CNN cable news channel, a source close to the situation said on Tuesday.
Zucker will succeed departing CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton, who said in July he was leaving the once-dominant news network after nine years in the job amid a recent ratings slump.
The appointment of Zucker as the new president of CNN Worldwide will be announced by the end of next week, the source said. Zucker could not immediately be reached on Tuesday. A Time Warner spokesman had no comment.
Zucker gained a reputation as a news-producing whiz when he worked with Couric on NBC's "Today" show.
Now he will face the challenge of turning around CNN, the channel that pioneered around-the-clock cable news coverage when it was launched in 1980 by founder Ted Turner, but then saw its primetime ratings hit a 21-year low in this year's second quarter.
Since its beginnings, CNN has tried to hold the middle ground in its news coverage, a position that some blame for its ratings erosion. As CNN's viewership declined, ratings increased for rivals Fox News and MSNBC, which blend news with opinion and political commentary.
CNN "is a very large stage, and a lot needs to be done to fix it," the source told Reuters. Zucker "has been itching to get back in the game, and this is the best opportunity out there for him."
News Corp owns Fox, while MSNBC is now owned by cable giant Comcast Corp after its purchase of NBC two years ago that led to Zucker's ouster from NBCUniversal. The opinion programs on No. 1 cable news network Fox News skew conservative, while commentaries on MSNBC lean liberal.
Some industry experts argue that CNN needs to move out of the middle to regain lost ground.
"You never want to be stuck between two strong competitors, as they will divide the market and starve you out," said Adam Armbruster, a media industry consultant with Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Co.
Zucker "needs to bring his trademark 'star power' to the network and make them relevant and create regular viewers even when no big news story is breaking," Armbruster said.
CNN has lagged Fox News Channel and MSNBC in primetime viewers for more than a year. On a normal news night, CNN draws fewer than 1 million U.S. viewers in prime time, compared to about 2.7 million for Fox News Channel and about 1.5 million viewers for MSNBC, according to ratings data.
Though CNN remains profitable, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said in August he was unsatisfied with CNN's low ratings and would seek to turn around the network with programming that was more compelling but remained non-partisan.
The network has struggled to find a programming identity in recent years, but not for lack of trying. It paired former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer with pundit Kathleen Parker for a talk show that failed miserably. It released perhaps its most notable personality in Larry King after more than two decades and replaced him with Piers Morgan. More recently, the network created a primetime show for its most youth-oriented host, Anderson Cooper, and enlisted popular chef Anthony Bourdain for a travel and food-related show.
CNN claimed a cable news ratings victory on the night of the U.S. presidential election in November. The network said it attracted 8.8 million total viewers, beating Fox News Channel by about 1 million.
CNN does have one advantage over its cable news competitors in that it attracts a much bigger digital audience. In October, CNN boasted 68 million unique online visitors. That topped the 56 million for NBC News Digital and the 35 million for the Fox News Digital Network, according to CNN.
As president, Zucker, who famously said that networks can't trade analog dollars for digital dimes, can attempt to upstream CNN's digital audience to the network and leverage its web reach for both ratings and financial gain.
During Zucker's tenure at NBC, he was intimately involved in the decision to move MSNBC hard left to counter Fox News, though that does not mean he will move CNN to the left, the source close to the situation said.
He also remained involved in decisions about programming and strategic direction of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC after he was named CEO of NBCUniversal, said the source.
While Zucker's news chops have never been questioned, his tenure at NBC is often defined by the network's failures in primetime, as his rise to CEO coincided with NBC's fall from its top spot on the ratings perch. It has resided in the primetime ratings basement among the big four TV networks for the better part of a decade. This year, however, NBC has experienced a bit of a resurgence in primetime and ranks first once again among viewers 18-49 years old.
Zucker was known for having little patience or interest in Hollywood or the delicate personalities that inhabit it, as evidenced by his handling of the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien late night switch, in which he threatened to "ice," or prevent O'Brien from working, for two years at one point during the standoff. He had a similarly unsentimental approach with executives, firing NBC Entertainment boss Kevin Reilly unexpectedly to bring in Ben Silverman, only to fire Silverman two years later.
But Zucker's reputation in the news business should help him attract strong talent to CNN, said one former industry executive who has worked with Zucker. "He has so much credibility in the news space. News people will want to work for him," the source said.