Jeff Zucker, the newly appointed president of CNN Worldwide, pledged to maintain the cable news network's non-partisan programming bent on Thursday, but said it needed to broaden its coverage beyond politics and war.
Zucker, a former top 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 in January, will succeed Jim Walton, and report to Phil Kent, chairman and chief executive of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting System.
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 in the weeks leading up to the announcement included Mark Shapiro, the former CEO of Dick Clark productions, and NBC News chief Steve Capus.
Horizon media analyst Brad Adgate described Zucker's hiring as a coup for CNN.
"I compare it Yahoo putting Marissa Mayer in charge; it's a big name running a company that has a little bit of a tarnished brand name," Adgate said.
Zucker, who will be based at CNN in New York, gained a reputation as a news-producing whiz working with Couric on NBC's "Today" show. CNN's headquarters are in Atlanta, where Turner is based. Under Zucker's leadership, "Today" became the most-watched morning news show and the most profitable program on television.
He remained involved in programming decisions as well as the strategic direction of NBC News and the MSNBC and CNBC cable channels, even after he was named CEO of NBC Universal, a source close to him told Reuters earlier this week, when news first broke of his imminent CNN appointment. NBC Universal is controlled by Comcast Corp.
Zucker was heavily involved in the decision to move some of MSNBC's programming to the political left to counter Fox News Channel's perceived rightward slant, the source told Reuters, though that did not imply he would move CNN programs in a more partisan direction. Fox is owned by News Corp.
Zucker 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.
Since its beginnings as the first 24-hour cable news network, CNN has tried to hold the middle ground in its coverage, a position that some blame for the erosion in its ratings.
As CNN's viewership declined, ratings increased for Fox News and MSNBC, which blend news with opinion and political commentary.
Zucker acknowledged the competition, and called partisan politics "loud," but said CNN wouldn't sway to any side of the political spectrum.
"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," he said.
CNN has lagged Fox and MSNBC in prime-time viewership for more than a year. On a regular news night, CNN draws 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 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.
Zucker now has the task of improving the performance of a network whose prime-time ratings hit a 21-year low during the second quarter of this year.
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.
Though CNN remains profitable, Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner's chief executive, said in August he was unsatisfied with the network's low ratings and would seek to turn it around with more compelling programming that would remain non-partisan.
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.
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.
Zucker admitted Thursday that "there's no doubt that I made mistakes in the entertainment world and I own those."
But Kent, who led the search, said Zucker's track record at NBC Entertainment did not deter him.
"Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest head of the NBC Entertainment businesses or not was irrelevant to my search," Kent said.