MSNBC’s deal to sell sponsorship of the news program Morning Joe to Starbucks for a reported $10 million was greeted with mixed reactions from producers and executives at rival news organizations.
A few viewed the deal as a smart financial maneuver at a time when television news is being squeezed by financial factors wrought by the digital revolution. Others warned that such overt branding was antithetical to the mission of television news.
“It’s an utter abrogation of journalistic standards,” said one news executive.
The conflict-of-interest argument resonated with several executives; one quipped that the deal was just a “continuation of the whoring” of a medium that long ago became beholden to the tangled interests of corporate parents.
MSNBC president Phil Griffin called the title sponsorship deal “a natural fit” and “organic” for a show that invokes coffee in its title. Indeed, Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were drinking Starbucks’ coffee beverages on the show well before the official branding kicked off June 1. The symbiotic relationship between the program and the coffee-maker was also on full display during the political conventions and the inauguration, when Morning Joe originated from Starbucks locations on the road.
The deal – which includes on-air branding via title sponsorship that lets viewers know that Morning Joe is now “Brewed by Starbucks” – makes the relationship official, more conspicuous and, of course, gives MSNBC an infusion of cash. When asked to characterize the internal debate over the sponsorship, Griffin said, “There wasn’t a lot of wringing of hands.”
“We have to look at new ways of doing things,” he continued. “In this day and age, you’ve got to be smarter and more interesting in the way you deal with everything in this business from advertising and promotion to the content you put on the air. It is so competitive out there. We are in the middle of a media revolution, and we’re also in the middle of a very difficult economic period. And you have to look at new ways of doing things.”
In fact, sponsorship on news programs is not new. The first television news program in 1949 was sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, the maker of Camel cigarettes. NBC’s 15-minute headline roundup was called the Camel News Caravan and newsreader John Cameron Swayze was required to have a lighted cigarette in an ashtray on the anchor desk. Also, newsreel footage shown on the program could not depict anyone smoking a cigar. The one exception was Winston Churchill.
“What makes this unusual is that you actually see your talent using the product that is the sponsor of your program,” said independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “This is going back to the old days where they had to smoke Camel cigarettes if the show was sponsored by Camel. It’s not new, it’s retro.”
Some producers pointed out that morning news in particular is festooned with branded segments. And as long as there is transparency and full disclosure, news organizations can preserve their status as objective arbiters of news and information.
The conflict-of-interest “arguments have been specious at the end of the day,” said one producer. “You put all of the disclaimers in and if a conflict arises, you find a new [sponsor].”
“Our standards apply,” Griffin said. “And nobody will be a better judge than the viewer. The viewer isn’t stupid. So we’d better be honorable to our viewer.”
Interestingly, the MSNBC/Starbucks deal also will include charitable initiatives, which could give MSNBC some cover from criticism. Griffin conceded as much, but stressed that it was not a motivating factor: “We were going to do this anyway.”
Ultimately, naming rights for television programs may not be such a departure at a time when marketers are desperate to reach increasingly distracted consumers. But the hard sell is not without risks.
“Product placement is the bane of our existence,” Tyndall said. “Sooner or later, there’s going to be a backlash against it. And everything is going to be logo- free.”