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CNN is close to a deal with former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker to take the reins of the struggling cable news network, the New York Times reported.
Zucker, who currently executive produces Katie Couric’s new daytime talk show, would replace Jim Walton, who announced his decision to step down from his longtime post as president of CNN Worldwide in July. Walton officially will depart the Time Warner-owned company when his contract expires at year’s end.
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Several sources close to Zucker told the Times that an announcement is expected soon. However, the report cautioned that a deal still could fall apart.
Other potential candidates for the job had reportedly included Mark Shapiro, former CEO of Dick Clark Productions. Zucker and Shapiro also had been reported as possible candidates for the CEO post at the beleaguered Tribune Co. earlier this year.
CNN declined comment.
Zucker has a news background but has been out of the game for a while. He first joined NBC as a researcher in 1986 but quickly rose up the ranks to become the youngest executive producer of Today in 1992, when he was 26. During his tenure, Today enjoyed a solid lead as TV’s most-watched morning show.
Eight years later, Zucker was named president of NBC Entertainment and continued to add responsibilities before being named president and CEO of NBCUniversal in 2007.
While overseeing NBC, he played a key role in the network’s negotiations with the Friends cast for a 10th season and signing Donald Trump for The Apprentice, which became a breakout hit.
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But his tenure also was marked by some disappointments, including the Jay Leno–Conan O’Brien Tonight Show debacle and NBC’s losing its No. 1 ranking, dropping to fourth place. Zucker left the company in early 2011, following its sale to Comcast, and later reteamed with his former Today co-host Couric to launch her new daytime talk show.
Zucker spent more than a year leading up to the launch of Katie, helping set it up with a distributor and working on the launch. Once it was sold to Disney for syndication and went on the air in September, he became executive producer, overseeing the operation.
Zucker did not have the usual deal of an executive producer. He was a partner in the venture with Couric and was in line to split the $20 million ABC reportedly committed to pay them for the show.
Katie has not been a huge breakout hit in the way The Oprah Winfrey Show once was or Judge Judy is today, but her show has been the best performing of the five major syndicated talk shows that started this season. She has remained the No. 1 new talk show among newcomers including Steve Harvey and Ricki Lake for all of her first eight weeks on the air.
Katie‘s up-and-down ratings have stabilized recently, and the show hit some seasonal highs in October.
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The season-to-date average for the show is a 1.9 rating in total households (an average of 2.4 million viewers a day). Among women ages 25-54, the key demographic group that advertisers pay to reach on daytime TV, Katie has averaged a 1.1 rating (an average of 657,000 viewers a day). That makes it the sixth-highest-rated talk show in syndication in total viewers and in women 25-54.
Couric, whose show has a two-year commitment from ABC and other stations, has known for a few months that Zucker might leave earlier than originally envisioned. A search began more than a month ago for a new executive producer, but it is unknown what the status is of that quest.
Zucker will probably stay with the show until the end of this year. To separate, he will have to negotiate his way out of a contract that promised to pay him a reported $8 million. It is unclear how much he will walk away with leaving this soon.
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