A view of the Comcast offices on August 18, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Cindy Ord—Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
July 5, 2016

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and so does the ongoing disruption of the cable-television universe. A case in point is the news that Comcast and Netflix have signed a deal that would make the streaming service available through the cable company’s X1 set-top boxes. It’s the first time Netflix will be distributed directly by Comcast’s network, and is expected to be available later this year.

One of the things that makes this arrangement surprising—or at least would have if it had occurred a year or two ago—is that Comcast and Netflix used to be seen as bitter enemies.

The enmity between the two started way back in 2010, when Comcast and Blockbuster launched a competitor to Netflix’s DVD-rental business (the service went nowhere and Blockbuster has since gone bankrupt). Then in 2014, Comcast forced Netflix to pay a fee to have its shows distributed on the cable network, triggering a heated battle over whether this was a breach of net neutrality.

Comcast said the fee was justified because Netflix accounted for a huge proportion of the data on its network. The streaming service paid the charges, but argued to the Federal Communications Commission that charging such fees was improper for a company with so much market power.

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Although it agreed to pay the cable company, Netflix ultimately won the battle: The FCC said last year that it was prepared to hear complaints about such “interconnection” fees charged by cable providers as part of its investigation into new net neutrality rules.

In fact, some believe that a proposed $45-billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable was torpedoed in part because of lobbying by Netflix about the dangers of having a single company with so much control.

Even without this history of bad blood between two companies, however, there is ample reason for Netflix and Comcast to be adversaries. The streaming service is widely seen as the future of television-style content, and cable networks are seen as the past—a cozy oligopoly whose days are numbered. Many “cord cutters” have tossed their subscriptions completely in favor of streaming shows via Netflix and other services.

So why would Comcast suddenly decide to cut a deal to carry Netflix? In part, it’s a rear-guard maneuver. The cable giant knows some people have given up its service—or are thinking about doing so—in favor of Netflix. So why not play ball with the enemy in order to keep some of them connected as long as possible?

Even if large numbers of subscribers bail on their cable subscription in favor of streaming via services like Netflix and Hulu (and there is some debate about whether this is occurring or not), Comcast can still get some revenue from those who remain via its high-priced Xfinity boxes.

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In addition, Comcast has no doubt seen the writing on the wall when it comes to the FCC’s approach to the set-top market. Chairman Tom Wheeler has said his commission wants to break open the cable-box monopoly and allow other services access to the devices, so the Netflix deal may be an attempt to get in front of that.

Although the deal between the two former enemies was widely described as a ground-breaking move for the cable company, Netflix’s share price (NFLX) didn’t really move much on the news, climbing by about 1.2%. In part, that’s likely because investors assume most Comcast subscribers who want Netflix already have it, and therefore any bump from the arrangement would be minimal. The stock was also hit by a downgrade from one Wall Street analyst, so the Comcast news just brought it back to even.

For Comcast, meanwhile, the deal might mean a moderate amount of extra Xfinity revenue, and a slowing down of the cord-cutting effect. But it’s not really going to change the long-term trend for the company, which is probably why its stock price (CMCSA) didn’t see much action on the news either.

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