Zucker said he took note of the opportunity after Walton's announcement but didn't inquire about it until being contacted by Kent after Labor Day. Their discussions grew more serious during the past few weeks, he said.
While familiar with CNN, he said in an interview that "I have watched it with a slightly different eye more recently. Obviously, there's a tremendous amount of fantastic work that goes on here."
Zucker was behind the ill-fated move of Conan O'Brien to the "Tonight" show, with Jay Leno's brief and disastrous stay in prime time. But an unorthodox Zucker personnel decision — recruiting Meredith Vieira to replace Katie Couric on "Today" — was a big winner.
A brash and opinionated executive, Zucker rubbed many people in the Hollywood power structure the wrong way. But Kent said he was interested only in Zucker's news experience.
"Whether Jeff Zucker was the best leader for NBC's entertainment division was irrelevant to me," he said.
Since leaving NBC Universal after its purchase by Comcast Corp., Zucker has helped Couric launch a daytime talk show. Couric said she was excited for Zucker's opportunity "and equally excited for CNN."
Roger Ailes, top executive at Fox News, offered a welcome to Zucker on Thursday.
"I have known Jeff for a quarter of a century and he is one of the most experienced executives in the business," Ailes said. "He is a talented producer with solid strategic skills and I'm sure he'll make a difference at CNN. I wish Jeff the best."
Tom Johnson, president of CNN during the 1990s, called Zucker's hiring a "splendid choice."
"I would hope it would be a return to CNN where news trumps all programming so CNN gets back to its basics of being a breaking news network," Johnson said.
There was no word on the futures of Ken Jautz and Mark Whitaker, who have been running the flagship network on a day-to-day basis since Walton's departure. Zucker will also have management control over HLN, CNN International and the CNN.com website.