LOS ANGELES - It was a theatrical entrance even for the Tony Awards.
Actor Harvey Fierstein - wearing a tuxedo jacket, a blue plastic inflatable inner-tube hugging his stomach, pink swim trunks, and hoisting a cocktail glass sporting a tiny umbrella - waddled on stage two hours into the awards ceremony telecast Sunday on CBS.
But rather than revealing who would win the next category, Fierstein instead introduced a commercial segment that promoted Royal Caribbean International's cruise lines that offer full-length Broadway shows onboard.
The producers cut-away from the stage of the Beacon Theatre in New York to a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. There, the sailing troupe of performers entertained audiences with two numbers from "Hairspray."
The sea-faring maneuver during the 66th Annual Tony Awards appears to be one of the first prominent product integration during a prestigious awards program. The nearly 4-minute cruise segment then segued into a full-fledged commercial, again touting Royal Caribbean's "Oasis of the Seas" line.
Some TV critics and social media commentators quickly judged the cruise ship promotion to be a show stopper - and not in a good way.
The organizers of the Tony Awards - the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing - and Royal Caribbean International came away with a different impression.
"We thought it worked. They are a sponsor, they paid us to do it, and we felt that it was a good fit for the Tony Awards," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. "One of our goals is to spread the message about Broadway, and make theater more accessible to people."
St. Martin and a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman declined to divulge how much Royal Caribbean paid to be featured in the show. The cruise line was an "official partner" of the Tony Awards, and also sponsored a VIP Loge in the Beacon Theatre.
While CBS did not participate in the financial arrangement for the show integration, the network did collect revenue for the commercial spot that ran immediately following the segment.
TV viewers are seeing more product integrations than ever. Advertisers want to insert their products into the content of television shows now that digital video recorders, which allow viewers to fast-forward through commercials, are available in nearly 50 million homes. Last year, Nielsen counted more than 8,100 product placement occurrences in TV shows, a 65 percent jump over 2009.
"We were very excited to bring our world class entertainment to the millions of viewers watching last night's Tony Awards," said Lyan Sierra-Caro, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean International. "We also are thrilled to have partnered with the Broadway League to showcase the Broadway shows we offer onboard our ships."
Ratings were down about 13 percent for the award show, which was up against stiff competition Sunday night with the "True Blood" season opener on HBO and the "Mad Men" season finale on AMC. The Tony Awards - never a robust performer in the ratings - attracted 6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. In contrast, about 6.9 million viewers tuned in during last year's telecast and 2010.
"We are trying to create more viewership for the Tony Awards," St. Martin said, adding this wasn't the first time the producers have tried to liven up the program, once simulcasting a musical number from Times Square. The cruise line promotion, in the works for nearly a year, was simply a bid to reach new theater patrons, St. Martin said.
Analytic firms that measure social media comments found chatter was mixed. Bluefin Labs, based in Massachussetts, measured approximately 229,000 comments about the Tony Awards, including "about 350" comments about the Royal Caribbean promotion. Numerous commenters blasted the cruise line and its promotion because its productions were non-union, according to Seattle-based Banyan Branch.
"It appears that the only people who were really upset were theater professionals, which appeared to be due to the non-union actors and the fact that a cruise ship isn't Broadway," said Karl Baisch, senior research analyst with Banyan Branch.
CBS has committed to airing the Tony Awards through next year.
"We have always enjoyed supporting Broadway and the performing arts - even at sea," a CBS spokesman said.
By Meg James, Los Angeles Times