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* Zucker takes over ratings-starved news network in January
* Zucker says CNN will remain nonpartisan but broaden definition of news
* Zucker's entertainment track record "irrelevant" -TBS chief
By Peter Lauria and Liana B. Baker
Nov 29 (Reuters) - Jeff Zucker, the newly appointed president of CNN Worldwide, pledged on Thursday to maintain the cable news network's nonpartisan programming but said it needed to broaden its coverage beyond politics and war.
Zucker, the former chief executive at NBC Universal, was named president of CNN Worldwide, beginning in January.
Zucker, who will leave his producing role on Katie Couric's syndicated television talk show, will succeed Jim Walton, and report to Phil Kent, chairman and chief executive of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting System. He will be based in New York, even though CNN's headquarters are in Atlanta where Turner is based.
Kent said he led a "very deliberate search process" and sought an executive with management experience in television and cable who also "could be a magnet for talent."
Other potential candidates mentioned in the press included Mark Shapiro, the former CEO of Dick Clark productions and NBC News chief Steve Capus.
"I compare it to Yahoo putting Marissa Mayer in charge; it's a big name running a company that has a little bit of a tarnished brand name," said Horizon media analyst Brad Adgate.
Zucker, 47, is known to be smart and self-deprecating but also hyper-competitive and harsh. A former editor of the Harvard Crimson, he spent his entire career at NBC, rising from executive producer of the "Today" show at age 26 to CEO at 41. He left NBC in 2010 after its purchase by Comcast Corp .
Going from being chief executive of a major media conglomerate where employees reported to him to head of CNN, where he will report to both Kent and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes may appear to be a step backward, but Zucker doesn't see it that way.
"Everybody works for somebody," Zucker said, noting that he reported to General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt while at NBC. "Working for Phil is not a problem in any way for me."
Since its beginnings as the first 24-hour cable news network, CNN has committed to a nonpartisan approach to its programming, a position that some have described as a "view from nowhere" and blamed for the network's ratings erosion.
CNN has lagged Fox and MSNBC in prime-time viewership for more than a year, drawing fewer than 1 million U.S. prime-time viewers compared with about 2.7 million for Fox and about 1.5 million viewers for MSNBC, according to ratings data. CNN's prime-time ratings hit a 21-year low during the second quarter of this year.
While acknowledging the competition, Zucker called partisan politics "loud" and said CNN wouldn't sway to any side of the political spectrum.
"CNN stands for journalism, unlike almost anyone else," he said. "We've got to remain true to the journalistic values that have always been the hallmark at CNN, and at the same time, continue to broaden the definition of what news is."
Zucker, who has survived two bouts of colon cancer, himself follows politics with the same fervor with which he plays tennis. He often spends his leisure hours at the tennis court, and was rumored to be eyeing political office after leaving NBC.
He gained a reputation as a news-producing whiz working with Couric on NBC's "Today" show. Under Zucker's leadership, "Today" became the most-watched morning news show and the most profitable program on television. After being named CEO of NBC Universal, he remained involved in programming decisions as well as the strategic direction of NBC News and the MSNBC and CNBC cable channels, sources said.
CNN is still capable of being the go-to network for major breaking news stories. The network scored a ratings win on the night of the U.S. presidential election in November, luring 8.8 million viewers, ahead of Fox News Channel by about 1 million.
Kent said CNN was coming off a strong 30 days spurred by a "trifecta" of events - Hurricane Sandy, the presidential election and the situation in Israel and Gaza - but that it also needed viewers to check in with it daily.
"Ratings are not the only thing that we're concerned about here... what is the most important thing in our business is to be essential every day to someone," Kent said.
Still, CNN has at least one advantage over its cable news competitors: It attracts a much bigger digital audience. In October, CNN boasted 68 million unique online visitors. That topped 56 million for NBC News Digital and 35 million for the Fox News Digital Network, according to CNN.
As president, Zucker, who once said networks cannot trade analog dollars for digital dimes, can try to move CNN's digital audience upstream to the network and leverage its Web reach for both ratings and financial gain.
CNN has struggled to find a programming identity in recent years. Two years ago, it paired former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer with pundit Kathleen Parker for a talk show that failed in the ratings.
It also released talk show host Larry King - perhaps its best-known personality - after more than two decades as ratings dwindled, and replaced him with British journalist Piers Morgan.
More recently, the network created a prime-time show for its most youth-oriented host, Anderson Cooper, and enlisted popular chef Anthony Bourdain for a travel and food-related show.
Though CNN remains profitable, Bewkes said on Time Warner's earnings call in August that he was unsatisfied with the network's low ratings.
Zucker said he had ideas on how to tweak CNN's programming, but offered up generalities such as thinking "bigger and broader," "trying new things," and "executing better."
"It's unfair to talk specifics about anybody or any show," he said, citing his being at CNN "only an hour."
Kent, however, proposed an area he'd like Zucker to focus on at least initially--the morning daypart.
"What should CNN be doing in the morning, that's where I think Jeff will start," Kent said. "That's a thought exercise we never really did any of."
Taken together, those comments combined with the emphasis on recruiting talent, suggest that CNN's programming lineup and talent roster is likely to look a lot different from now.
"If Zucker can hire some exciting new people from unusual sources, then I think that CNN has a chance," said Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.
Added Jeff Gaspin, who worked as chairman of NBC Entertainment under Zucker, "News talent in front of and behind the camera respect him, and his instincts for the news business are unmatched."
While Zucker's news chops are respected, his tenure at NBC is often defined by the network's failures in prime time, as his rise to CEO coincided with NBC's fall from its top spot on the ratings perch.
Kent leapt to Zucker's defense when questioned about his entertainment programming track record.
"Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest head of the NBC Entertainment businesses or not was irrelevant to my search," Kent said.
For his part, Zucker admitted Thursday that "there's no doubt that I made mistakes in the entertainment world and I own those."
Included among those mistakes would be approving such shows as "Joey" and "Emeril," moving Jay Leno to prime time only to move him back to late night in an ugly dispute that forced Conan O'Brien off the network and firing programming head Kevin Reilly in favor of Ben Silverman only to get rid of him two years later.
In an ironic twist, Zucker is now reunited under the same corporate umbrella as O'Brien, who took his show to Turner's TBS network.
But Zucker does get credit for expanding NBC's portfolio in the lucrative cable television business by acquiring Oxygen and The Weather Channel and bringing a financial acumen to the media business--he almost always hit his GE-mandated numbers at NBC.
That keen awareness of the bottom line is not to be dismissed. Given the sharp cost cuts experienced by the television news business in recent years, CNN has frequently been rumored as a merger partner for CBS Corp and other companies.
But a deal doesn't appear to be in CNN's near future. Kent dismissed the possibility outright on the call, saying it was nowhere on the radar screen.