Rick Kaplan is out after two years as MSNBC president, during which the perennially third-place news network showed modest gains but didn't change its competitive standing with Fox News Channel and CNN.

His exit was described Wednesday as a "mutual decision" by NBC News President Steve Capus and Kaplan.

"He came in at a critical time, he stabilized it and now we're going to grow it," Capus said, adding that he expected an announcement of Kaplan's replacement quickly.

Kaplan would not talk to reporters about his exit, a spokesman said.

MSNBC's prime-time lineup is up 14 percent in viewers this year, while Fox and CNN are down. Fox's prime-time lineup averages 1.7 million viewers a night, CNN has 786,000 and MSNBC has 360,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the daytime, MSNBC's viewership has been flat.

With his increasingly liberal tilt and ongoing feud with Fox's Bill O'Reilly, Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" show has shown growth for MSNBC. Kaplan started a prime-time show that often concentrates on crime news with former Fox News personality Rita Cosby.

One of Kaplan's biggest priorities, a political show with former CNN commentator Tucker Carlson, proved to be a failure and was quickly moved out of prime time.

The gregarious Kaplan, a former CNN president, kept a low public profile during his time at MSNBC. He was appointed to the job in February 2004.

In an e-mail to MSNBC staff, Kaplan touted improvements made during his tenure, saying all of MSNBC's prime-time programs have "improved tremendously in their production and content."

"It is not often in professional life that someone has the opportunity to end his tenure on a such a high note," Kaplan wrote. "I couldn't be more proud of the progress we've made together over the last two and a half years."

Despite the overall strength of NBC News — and MSNBC's success as an Internet news brand — it's been an endless source of frustration for the company that the news channel has not been able to do better. Kaplan's tenure was a period of relative stability for the network, which in the past has been criticized for whiplash-inducing quick format changes.

Kaplan's note to staff members made no mention about what he planned to do. There was some speculation that Kaplan, a longtime ABC News staff member with a strong background in show production, might be a candidate to run "Good Morning America." That show's executive producer, Ben Sherwood, announced five days ago he was stepping down.