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Kaplan near CNN prexy post

NEW YORK — Cable News Network is close to naming longtime ABC News producer Rick Kaplan to a new No. 2 post at the cable-news web.

Capping a long courtship, a deal would move Kaplan, 50, to CNN president, overseeing all operations at the network and reporting to CNN News Group CEO Tom Johnson. He would divide his time between New York and CNN headquarters in Atlanta, and is expected to push for changes in how CNN covers and presents news.

The planned Kaplan hire is the latest sign that CNN founder Ted Turner is serious about breathing some new life into the 24-hour news web. CNN lately has suffered both ratings and image-wise after earning its reputation for coverage of major news events like the Persian Gulf War and O.J. Simpson trial. Its day-to-day coverage since then has been perceived as somewhat dull, and CNN now faces challenges from newer rivals MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

Turner has made noises about hiring high-profile talent to boost CNN’s image, but recent efforts to woo NBC’s Tom Brokaw proved unsuccessful.

CNN has been in talks with Kaplan for months, as reported (Daily Variety, Jan. 13), but the producer has been held to an ABC contract said to extend for at least six more months, with an escape clause available in October.

Unclear are the terms under which ABC will agree to release him. “The company will probably let him out of his contract, but there are some issues to be resolved,” an ABC source said late Monday.

On the CNN side, the move of exec VP, newsgathering operations, Ed Turner to editor-at-large last May paves the way for the Kaplan hire, since Kaplan would have usurped Turner’s former role in addition to taking on broader responsibilities.

Kaplan, a respected ABC producer who joined the web in 1979, was the top producer of “Nightline,” helped launch “PrimeTime Live” newsmag in 1989 and then went on to exec produce “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.” Since last year, Kaplan occupied a vague role as exec producer for special projects at the ABC Television Network, handling events such as the June affiliates meeting in Orlando.

A CNN spokesman declined comment, but an announcement on Kaplan could come as early as today.

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