Jeff Zucker wants to inject more "passion" into CNN. He wants to help the network "broaden the definition of what news is." And he wants to beat Fox News Channel and MSNBC in the ratings.
In his first remarks after the Thursday announcement that he will become president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker -- one of the country's best-known media executives -- offered those bits of his vision. But he spent more time emphasizing what he won't do: try to turn CNN into an ideological network.
"It's important (CNN) stay true to standards of great journalism," Zucker told reporters on a telephone conference call. But "just because you're not partisan doesn't mean that you can't be exciting.
"We need more passion and more fans -- and that shouldn't be mistaken for partisanship."
Zucker once earned credit for skyrocketing ratings at the "Today" show. He later was blamed for NBC's entertainment programming dropping from first to fourth in the ratings. His stance that CNN can succeed without venturing off of its news mission is in keeping with what CNN leaders have said for years amid well-known and widely diagnosed ratings woes.
When asked to name something new he might do, Zucker declined to be specific.
"Those ideas have to come in due time," he said.
He emphasized that CNN is successful in numerous ways, and should not be judged by the ratings of its U.S. TV network alone. Still, when pressed to give a yes or no answer, he said that beating Fox and MSNBC regularly in the ratings is one of his goals.
Taking questions from the media Thursday was just a taste of what's to come for Zucker.
In assuming the reins of CNN from outgoing president Jim Walton, Zucker steps back into the glare of the media spotlight -- a position he knows well.
His rise through the ranks at a relatively young age in the 1990s led many to label him a "boy wonder."
CNN is looking for a repeat performance.
"Jeff's experience as a news executive is unmatched for its breadth and success," Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting System, said in a statement Thursday. "He built and sustained the number-one brand in morning news, and under his watch NBC's signature news programming set a standard for quality and professionalism. As a programmer, a brand-builder and a leader, he will bring energy and new thinking to CNN."
Zucker said in a statement he's "thrilled to join the distinguished team of journalists across the worldwide platforms of CNN."
"The global reach and scale of the CNN brand is unparalleled in all of news. Outside of my family and the Miami Dolphins, there is nothing I am as passionate about as journalism... I'm excited to return to daily newsgathering and compelling storytelling in a place that values those above all else."
"It's hard to imagine a candidate to lead CNN with a better all-around resume," said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," which analyzes the media. "The guy has news in his veins, made the 'Today' show a smashing success and ran a major network. His stumbles were mainly on the entertainment side, which isn't what CNN does."
Admiration for Zucker took a big hit over the last decade when he took over NBC's entertainment programming. As NPR put it, he "drove NBC's ratings and reputation off a cliff."
"There's no doubt that I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those," he said Thursday. "But I feel really excited about being able to return to daily news both on television and in digital."
"There's a lot of people in the industry that have a lot of very strong opinions about him -- in both directions," said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "He is kind of a celebrity choice."
Rick Edmonds, media industry analyst for the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school focusing on journalism, told CNN the Zucker hire "makes a lot of sense."
"Moving to a news or news and opinion operation would, I think, play to his strengths," said Edmonds. "And he's a youngish guy with lots of energy. So, why not?"
The 47 year-old married father of four has survived cancer twice -- an experience that, he has said, "prepared me for almost anything."
Thompson, of the Bleier Center, told CNN before Zucker's news conference that he expects "we're probably going to see some of the aesthetics of the primetime shows in the other 24-hour networks be applied to CNN" -- including more opinion talk. Thompson also expects more elements of the kind of entertainment programming that was part of the "Today" show mix, along with hard news.
While Zucker stressed his plans to stick to CNN's fundamentals, Kent -- who joined Zucker on the conference call -- added that the network is looking at expanding programming outside of traditional hard news. "We've had shows about sports, fashion, technology," Kent said. "And some of that is going to be revisited."
In October, as speculation about the possible hire was growing, Los Angeles Times writer Joe Flint argued that "while Zucker easily has the ability to pump new life into CNN, he is such a high-profile executive that his hiring could create more problems than it would solve."