ESPN Skipper pic“We have better product than they do,” said ESPN President John Skipper today at the NCTA’s Cable Show convention in downtown LA about challenges to cable from Netflix, Amazon and Yahoo. “Shame on us if we don’t protect our turf,” he added. “We’re allowing them to set the tone of the conversation — we should set the tone of the conversation.” Proclaiming that “the single greatest buttress in the pay-TV package is ESPN,” Skipper also acknowledged the shifting landscape of cable and the real threats from new platforms. “We’re not all going to grow and make more money unless we sell the value” of pay-TV, he said. “There was not this discussion when it was a growing pie. We’ve got to find a way to grow the pie.”

imgresThe sports TV boss and Cable Show co-chair was joined today on the panel in the cavernous West Hall of the LA Convention Center by Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, A+E Networks president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, Turner Broadcasting Systems CEO John Martin and Suddenlink CEO Jerald Kent. “You’re dealing with a Netflix and Amazon that are not sharing their viewership,” said Dubuc, picking up on Skipper’s comments. Said Skipper: “Competition is not a bad thing but we need to feel a way to innovate. And find a way to let people get content on all their devices.”

While the emerging new platforms were one topic, content itself was another of interest to the cable crowd. “The demand for content has never been greater and the demand for creative talent has never been greater,” said Dubac of finding hits like Duck Dynasty. “I worry a lot about where the next generation of creators is going to come from,” she added. “The next generation of creators is going to YouTube, to VICE, and how do we attract them to us?” Martin shared some of Dubac’s concerns and about the “arms race for programming” but also thinks cable is in a very strong place. “I think it is amazing that the No. 1 show on television is on cable,” Martin said in reference to AMC’s The Walking Dead. “I would like to see any remaining distinction between cable and network blown up.

“We’ve got to find a way to accommodate those customers,” said Marcus, also the Cable Show’s co-chair, about consumers who are increasingly finding their cable bills overwhelming. His comments of course come as Comcast‘s $45B acquisition of Time Warner Cable faces regulatory and political hurdles. While not advocating a la carte solution, Kent suggested that a change does need to come to grow customer’s choices.

On the matter of the mega-merger, Marcus would not be drawn out on his future plans. “It’s way to early for me to stat planning the next chapter,” he said. “I got way to much to do running Time Warner Cable until the closing.”