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Jeff Zucker in advanced talks for top job at CNN

Former NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker is in advanced negotiations to become head of the cable news channel CNN, people familiar with the matter said.

Zucker would succeed Jim Walton, who said in July that he was stepping down as president and chief executive of CNN Worldwide. CNN is a unit of Time Warner Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting.

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Discussions with Zucker have heated up in the last few weeks and Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes and Turner Broadcasting Chairman Phil Kent are hoping to have an agreement locked up either by the end of this week or early next week, one person said. Talks could still fall apart given the delicate nature of the situation.

Zucker, who left NBCUniversal almost two years ago, has been the candidate most often mentioned for the position practically since the day Walton announced his plans to leave CNN. His resume includes a very successful run as executive producer of NBC’s morning program “Today.” He has also played a major role in the network’s overall news programming efforts including its coverage of the Olympics and elections.

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However, Zucker has been away from the news business for more than a decade. He left “Today” to become head of NBC’s prime-time lineup in 2000 and though he did not have nearly the same success programming the evenings as he did the mornings, he still rose to the top of NBCUniversal. He left after Comcast Corp. acquired a majority stake in NBCUniversal. Zucker is currently producing former “Today” anchor Katie Couric’s daytime talk show.

The only other prominent candidate to emerge besides Zucker in recent weeks is Mark Shapiro, a former top executive at the sports network ESPN who until this fall was president of Dick Clark Productions. But Shapiro, who was regarded as an innovative production executive while at ESPN, is seen as a long shot given his lack of hard news experience.

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If Zucker takes the job he will have his work cut out for him. CNN has struggled in the ratings compared with News Corp.'s Fox News and Comcast’s MSNBC. Both those channels have mixes of news and opinion, while CNN continues to try to focus exclusively on news.

When Walton stepped down he said in an email to his staff that the cable news channel “needs new thinking” and a “new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through.”

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While viewers still flock to CNN when there are major news events such as this month’s presidential election, when the news cycle slows its audience shrinks. The channel has struggled to find personalities and programming that can keep ratings high on a consistent basis.

Zucker couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday and his attorney did not return calls. A Time Warner spokesman declined to comment.

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ALSO:

A Jeff Zucker-CNN combination is not as simple as it seems

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Mark Shapiro emerges as a candidate for the top job at CNN

Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

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