Incoming CNN President Jeff Zucker said Thursday that he intends to make the network more "vibrant and exciting" while broadening the programming on television's original but struggling cable news outlet.
The former NBC Universal chief's long-rumored selection as CNN president was announced Thursday. He'll start in January and report to Phil Kent, who runs all the Turner networks for parent company Time Warner.
Zucker will lead a large and profitable news organization with 23 separate businesses worldwide that has come to be defined by problems at the flagship U.S. network, particularly in prime time. CNN has never been able to solve the conundrum of how to keep viewers on quiet news days, while Fox News Channel and MSNBC have passed it by with combative programming that appeals to political partisans.
"The key is that CNN remain true to its ideals of great journalism but at the same time be vibrant and exciting," Zucker said. "Just because you're not partisan doesn't mean you can't be exciting."
He said it was premature to offer specifics. Although he said it was his goal to beat Fox and MSNBC in the ratings, it was important to note that he sees the television competition more broadly.
"News is not just about politics and war," he said.
CNN this summer said it was developing a program featuring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and Zucker cited it as some of the new thinking he's hoping to see.
Kent said it was essential for CNN to build a base of hardcore fans who will stick with the network no matter the news of the day. Both Kent and Zucker said CNN has no plans to retreat from its stance of unbiased reporting.
"CNN does not have an identity problem," Kent said. "CNN knows what it is and what its identity is. If anything, CNN has an execution problem."
During this election year, CNN is averaging 763,000 viewers in prime time on weekdays, up 2 percent from 2011, according to the Nielsen Co. Fox is averaging 2.5 million, up 13 percent from last year, and MSNBC is at 1.1 million, a 22 percent increase.
Anderson Cooper is CNN's best-known news anchor, with a news show that airs at 8 and 10 p.m. Eastern time. Piers Morgan hosts a nightly talk show modeled after Larry King's. Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett, Candy Crowley, Soledad O'Brien and Sanjay Gupta are among the network's most popular personalities.
Kent said he was seeking someone with news and television management experience who could be a magnet for talent. Zucker shot to fame in TV as executive producer of the "Today" show at the start of its morning dynasty in the 1990s. He was less successful as NBC's entertainment president. As chief of NBC Universal, he couldn't turn the flagship company around but oversaw a profitable and growing stable of cable networks.
Zucker replaces Jim Walton, who announced this summer that he was leaving.
Zucker said he took note of the opportunity after Walton's announcement but didn't inquire about it until being contacted by Kent after Labor Day. Their discussions grew more serious during the past few weeks, he said.
While familiar with CNN, he said in an interview that "I have watched it with a slightly different eye more recently. Obviously, there's a tremendous amount of fantastic work that goes on here."
Zucker was behind the ill-fated move of Conan O'Brien to the "Tonight" show, with Jay Leno's brief and disastrous stay in prime time. But an unorthodox Zucker personnel decision — recruiting Meredith Vieira to replace Katie Couric on "Today" — was a big winner.
A brash and opinionated executive, Zucker rubbed many people in the Hollywood power structure the wrong way. But Kent said he was interested only in Zucker's news experience.
"Whether Jeff Zucker was the best leader for NBC's entertainment division was irrelevant to me," he said.
Since leaving NBC Universal after its purchase by Comcast Corp., Zucker has helped Couric launch a daytime talk show. Couric said she was excited for Zucker's opportunity "and equally excited for CNN."
Roger Ailes, top executive at Fox News, offered a welcome to Zucker on Thursday.
"I have known Jeff for a quarter of a century and he is one of the most experienced executives in the business," Ailes said. "He is a talented producer with solid strategic skills and I'm sure he'll make a difference at CNN. I wish Jeff the best."
Tom Johnson, president of CNN during the 1990s, called Zucker's hiring a "splendid choice."
"I would hope it would be a return to CNN where news trumps all programming so CNN gets back to its basics of being a breaking news network," Johnson said.
There was no word on the futures of Ken Jautz and Mark Whitaker, who have been running the flagship network on a day-to-day basis since Walton's departure. Zucker will also have management control over HLN, CNN International and the CNN.com website.