NEW YORK (AP) – Former CNN chief Rick Kaplan was hired Tuesday to run MSNBC, replacing Erik Sorenson at the helm of the last-place cable news network.

An award-winning producer at ABC News, Kaplan headed CNN’s domestic operations from 1997 to 2000. After teaching at Harvard, Kaplan returned to ABC News last year to help plan Iraq war coverage.

Kaplan has been a senior executive at ABC News for the past year.

“I worked with Rick for 13 years at ABC News and I know firsthand the energy and innovation that is his trademark,” said Neal Shapiro, NBC News president.

Sorenson has been MSNBC’s president and general manager since 1998. The network has remained a distant third in the news competition to Fox News Channel and CNN despite several attention-getting attempts to catch up.

MSNBC has averaged 373,000 viewers in prime time this season, compared with CNN’s 927,000 and Fox’s 1.62 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Sorenson will work on special projects at NBC News, the network said.

While MSNBC generally draws a younger audience than its competitors, it has suffered an identity crisis partly due to its frequent and abrupt shifts in focus.

Phil Donahue was brought in to compete with Fox’s popular talk show host Bill O’Reilly, but lasted less than a year. Jesse Ventura was considered a big hope, but his attempt to move into television was plagued with problems and lasted only a few months.

MSNBC brought on conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage for a weekend talk show last year, but fired him for anti-gay comments barely four months into his job.

The network recently hired Deborah Norville for a prime-time talk show. A news program with Keith Olbermann and talk show with Joe Scarborough are the network’s other prime-time shows.

AP-ES-02-17-04 1209EST

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