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Is Starbucks' 'Morning Joe' Brew Too Strong?

Tuning In: MSNBC's Java Sponsorship Gets Overcaffeinated

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Did MSNBC put "Morning Joe" anchor Mika Brzezinski in a tough spot this morning when it set up a segment about one of her show's most prominent sponsors?

That's one way to read a small part of today's "Morning Joe" featuring an interview with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who answered questions about the coffee chain's 40th anniversary.

Regular viewers of "Morning Joe" will likely recall that the popular morning-news show is "brewed by Starbucks," as various bumpers and video billboards remind them every morning while the program cuts to commercial breaks. Yet the show didn't mention Starbucks' largess during the Schultz segment, which ran more than seven minutes.

This sort of unfortunate juxtaposition between sponsor and news story was probably bound to happen. In 2009, Starbucks announced it would enjoy prominent on-screen placement on MSNBC during "Joe" after the coffee chain agreed to become a "name sponsor" of the program. Starbucks told various press outlets that the pact was aimed at helping it reach affluent, sophisticated consumers -- the kind who might just stop by a Starbucks, don'tcha know? A report in The New York Times suggested the deal was worth somewhere around $10 million to MSNBC.

Clearly, both parties like it: Nearly two years later, the branding is still part of the show.

At the time of its inception, Phil Griffin, now president of MSNBC, suggested to the Associated Press that MSNBC news anchors would not shy away from asking hard questions of Starbucks if the matter demanded. "It doesn't do Starbucks or us any good to put our head in the sand," he said. "We are going to stay true to the principles of integrity in our news operation."

But it seems odd that MSNBC didn't see a conflict at least worth mentioning in this morning's segment. This is the same cable channel, remember, that briefly suspended both former prime-time host Keith Olbermann and "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough for making donations to political operatives without making proper disclosures to bosses, and thereby leaving viewers in the dark.

Letting Ms. Brzezinski interview Mr. Schultz without explaining the program's relationship with Starbucks -- a Starbucks promotional message on-screen after the fact doesn't really salvage the situation -- poses a thorny issue all its own.

"We've been upfront about our relationship with Starbucks and Willie Geist addressed the partnership during the interview," a spokeswoman for MSNBC said in a statement. "Our regular viewers are well aware that Morning Joe is 'Brewed by Starbucks.'"

To be sure, some might think the Starbucks relationship on-air is obvious. The hosts have long sipped coffee from Starbucks-branded cups. Before every commercial, on-screen graphics tell viewers in no uncertain terms that the program is "brewed by Starbucks." On today's program, Mr. Schultz took pains to discuss a new "Morning Joe" blend of Starbucks coffee that was available -- even as MSNBC cameras panned to bags of the java sitting on the news desk. And co-host Willie Geist congratulated Mr. Schultz on Starbucks' 40th anniversary while mentioning that "we are excited to be working with you on education and community service over the next year or so."

It's also true that Mr. Schultz received some decent questions this morning. Ms. Brzezinski asked about teenagers who visit Starbucks and what options were available to help them avoid too many calories or too much caffeine. Andrew Ross Sorkin, the New York Times business reporter serving as a show guest, asked Mr. Schultz about the company's fracturing relationship with Kraft Foods.

The potential for conflict has bubbled up at NBC's news outlets in the recent past. CNBC and MSNBC both have made use of Cisco TelePresence screens that allow them to tap interview subjects who might not be within reach of traditional cameras. At the end of every news segment featuring a TelePresence interview, viewers see an on-screen "billboard" telling them that "promotional consideration has been provided by Cisco." CNBC executives have said they wouldn't shy away from covering the tech company when news mandates it. MSNBC has said its standards department vets such use of name-brand products on-screen.

With advertisers demanding closer alignment with specific programs, even personalities, these sorts of deals are likely to crop up again and again. At NBC News, "We'll never compromise the editorial independence, if you will, as we strike these deals, but we are always having the conversations," John Kelly, senior VP-sales and marketing, NBC News Networks, told Ad Age in July.

All that is well and good. But print-news operations would find it more difficult to tackle such stuff. Just look at the opprobrium hurled the way of the Los Angeles Times when the paper lets advertisers run ads that look like news articles on its front page. MSNBC could and probably should disclose while an interview is taking place that the subject of the conversation also contributes money to support the program. A sentence on the news crawl at the bottom of the screen or an on-air graphic flanking Mr. Schultz would have aired the financial laundry for all to see and avoided a conflict of interest for Ms. Brzezinski and her co-hosts -- and for MSNBC, too.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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