It’s not unusual to hear someone from a television network that’s not in first place to claim that ratings don’t matter. And CNN’s Jonathan Klein is no different.

Speaking at the 2010 Media Summit in New York, the president of CNN said that television ratings don’t paint an accurate picture of his network’s strengths. But his reasoning is interesting — it’s not because FOX is beating them there, but due to competition from online sources that aren’t being tracked by the Nielsen ratings.

FOX consistently beats CNN in the ratings. And Klein has plenty of evidence to prove that those ratings don’t present a fair portrayal of popularity. For instance, CNN had 100 million viewers last month. That’s 10% more than FOX’s 90 million. But FOX’s visitors stay longer, view more often during primetime, and do other things that Nielsen takes into account when compiling its rankings.

Klein says “we think of ourselves as being first.” But that’s not exactly how these things work. Even if CNN sees itself as the most fair and balanced, informed and fast network out there, that doesn’t mean that viewers are going to.

However, the news landscape is rapidly changing. Increased competition from the internet is changing the venues where news gets delivered. And consumption habits are changing. CNN is making more money than it was when it was one of only a handful of news channels. And it’s also beating other networks with its coverage of specific events. On both election night and major primary nights in 2008, CNN beat the broadcast channels:

“Never before have we competed on equal footing with the broadcast networks and beat them.”

But beyond TV, CNN is competing with more news sources today than ever before. Klein says:

“The competition I’m really afraid of comes from social networking sites. I’m more worried about the 500 million people on Facebook than I am about 200 million watching on FOX.”

As Klein points out: “We’re number one by a mile in digital news.”

CNN has been working hard to integrate breaking news from the web into its daily programming. There are a lot more man on the street — or web — updates interspersed throughout the network’s news delivery. CNN tries to verify all of the news that it gets from other sources, but often getting information up is the most important thing, and viewers have to acknowledge the source.

Trying to compete with online can also affect coverage negatively. Josh Tyrangiel, editor of BusinessWeek, likens 24-hour cable news to selling umbrellas. “You can sell the best umbrellas, or you can try to convince people it’s always raining.”

CNN tries for the former. But to convince audiences, you have to keep your game up at all times. Can a television network keep up with the internet?

“All depends on the people you have doing it,” says Klein.

Klein doesn’t think having a 6P news show matters any more, which sounds unusual coming from a network exec:

“There may not be a half hour news cast, but thank God there doesn’t have to be. There are so many sources of information. And there are going to be more of them.”

Whether there will be a sustainable payment structure to pay them is a different story. Klein puts it this way:

“I’m bullish on journalism. More people are getting into it than ever before. But I don’t know anyone who gets into journalism for the money. It’s an obsession.”

Image: CNN