Backstage at ABC’s 50th-anniversary telecast of the Miss America pageant, 52 hopefuls were in a tizzy. Seconds before their entrance, stomachs churned at the prospect of walking the fabled Atlantic City runway in a bikini and 4-inch heels. Caught on camera, Miss Illinois, Michelle LaGroue, said: “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
It may be the last time viewers see such a confession on network television. ABC, which has renewed its annual broadcast rights since 1997, has unceremoniously dumped Miss America.
The telecast ranks just behind the Oscars and Emmys as TV’s longest-running special, and has traditionally pulled in double-digit ratings. But these days, Miss America’s total viewership, while respectable enough to win the night of Sept. 18, was at a record-low with 9.8 million. This was down from 10.3 million last year, 12 million in 2002 and more than 25 million in 1995. Compare that to its 1960s heyday, when the pageant had a staggering 85 million viewers.
Pageant insiders say the Miss America Organization (MAO), which traces its humble beginnings to a 1920s publicity stunt designed to keep vacationers in Atlantic City past Labor Day, is paralyzed by dissent over how to adapt to changing times while still honoring its proud 83-year tradition. The pageant’s sinking ratings have led to infighting at the corporate offices, a drain on corporate sponsorship and an organized revolt by former titleholders.
“I thought the show this year was mediocre,” says television personality and Miss America 1993, Leanza Cornett. “I definitely was not entertained. And you hate saying that, as someone who has benefited so much from the program.”
The MAO acknowledges the show is ready for change, but insists ABC executives put it in a weak timeslot, gave it little promotion and made bad decisions in exercising their creative control of the broadcast.
“Who’s at home on Saturday night to watch any show?” says the newly crowned 2005 Miss America, Alabama’s Deidre Downs, who believes this year’s show did as well as could be expected given its timeslot.
Adding to the pageant’s woes these days is Donald Trump’s Miss USA, a relative TV newcomer and ferocious competitor.
For organizers of Miss America, the question now is whether this cultural icon has a television future or will it fade away as a quaint relic of our collective past. The MAO’s President and CEO Art McMaster insists he is “talking with several networks” and is “excited at the limitless opportunities that are now available for us to grow our brand.”
But not a single major network—NBC, CBS, FOX, UPN or the WB—has expressed serious interest in picking up the franchise. Every one of these networks except CBS (which declined comment) has stated categorically to B&C that it will not buy Miss America. Can Miss America be saved?
The pageant may find a home on cable, but “they’ve got to do something dramatic,” says Alliance CEO Jarrod Moses, a marketing expert who engineered a long-term sponsorship deal between Cover Girl and Miss Universe/USA.
Shortly after the September telecast, the non-profit Atlantic City-based MAO, hoping to stem the tide of a public-relations nightmare, quickly announced that there would be a parting of the ways with ABC, that it had been a mutual decision and that, “creatively, the relationship ran its course.” This was a polite way to describe the ugly, year-long tug-of-war between traditionalists and those fighting to bring an old-fashioned beauty contest into the modern television age.
At a time when the flawed, warts-and-all contestants on Survivor, The Apprentice and American Idol become instant household names, the smiling, polished, almost anonymous perfection of Miss America seems hopelessly out of touch.
“With the advent of reality TV, people are looking to get more into the heart and soul of a person,” says rival Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, which oversees Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. Her prescription to fix Miss America? “I think they need to take those ladies off the pedestal a little bit.”
Impressive ratings for rival pageants prove that televised beauty contests are not necessarily a stone-age holdover. Miss USA, attracting 13 million viewers in April, came in 11th for the week. And for the last three years, Miss Universe has been in the top 10. Both pageants are thriving under the co-ownership of NBC and Donald Trump.
Miss Universe also benefits from smart marketing overseas. “Telemundo (owned by NBC) actually simulcast Miss Universe into the Latin markets, where it does very well,” says Shugart.
Shugart’s organization also lobbied NBC to have its Miss USA contestants crosspromoted by appearing on the gross-out reality hit, Fear Factor. “NBC jumped at it,” says Shugart. “But you could not do that with Miss America, because they don’t want their girls seen that way. They’re too perfect.”
Several former Miss Americas agree that the pageant’s crown needs some adjustment, and after watching the ratings steadily decline, they were primed for a fight.
“We felt like we needed to take back a little control of the pageant,” says Cornett. What galvanized the former winners was the news last winter that ABC would be cutting the telecast from three hours to two, and eliminating the talent portion altogether.
“All the Miss Americas started e-mailing each other and saying: 'This is it. This is the demise. We’re not going to be on the air in another year,’” says Cornett. “Because they weren’t just taking talent away, they were taking it away when that’s what people were watching. Star Search brought it back, and American Idol. People were outraged.”
“Talent is an integral part of the pageant,” says Elwood Watson, co-author of There She is, Miss America; The Politics of Sex, Beauty and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant. Watson agrees that cutting talent was a big mistake. “It’s the one thing that distinguishes the pageant from all the others.”
In a meeting last February, five former Miss Americas, headed by Gretchen Carlson (Miss America 1989 and now co-anchor of CBS’ Saturday Early Show), descended upon Atlantic City, demanding a meeting with the pageant’s board of directors.
The MAO, says Carlson, was receptive to the women—to a point. “They’re not used to hearing a lot of outside opinions,” she says. The organization agreed to name two former Miss Americas (1971’s Phyllis George and 1964’s Donna Axum) to its board this year. But Carlson and company were less successful in convincing the MAO to hire an outside marketing firm to help cast Miss America in a brand new light.
What everyone did seem in agreement about was fighting ABC and producer, Bob Bain (who declined comment), to reinstate the talent portion of the show.
Says Carlson, who was the first classical violinist to win the crown (she used her scholarship to study at Stanford University), “For those of us who have lived through this program and continued to have it on our resumes for the last 15 years—and you know, it’s not always a positive—I said, 'look, if you strip this program of talent, then how the heck do those of us who have defended this program for so many years continue to do so?’”
As the turbulence over talent escalated, “Bob Bain came to Art McMaster and said, 'Okay, I’m going to show you clips of all 52 talents and let you see for yourself why we can’t air this,’” says Cornett. Contestants for Miss America, she has to concede, simply lacked talent.
“Look at the people on American Idol. There are some fiercely talented people who come to that show,” she says. “You cannot compete with that when you have 50 women who have barely mediocre talent.” She believes that scoring changes over the years (with talent shrinking from 50 percent to 20 percent of the final tally) are the culprit, encouraging less-talented women to enter the contest.
Her suggestion: Reshape the show as a reality series. “Make it a format very similar to American Idol. Make it six weeks, and have four or five judges who actually voice their opinions.”
In August, ABC fashioned a compromise: The last two contestants vying for the crown would compete head-to-head with their full talent routines.
Despite small concessions like this, the relationship between the MAO and ABC turned increasingly sour.
“We actually encouraged a parting of the ways with ABC last summer,” says Jenni Glenn, MAO director of communications, “because of several elements we thought just weren’t working.” Chief among them, she says, was lack of promotion leading up to the pageant. Pageant officials say ABC squelched a promotional plan that would have put the three preliminary nights of competition (which have never been broadcast) on cable.
“We had a verbal deal set with a cable network,” says Glenn, who declined to name the outlet, “but it was blocked by ABC. We all felt very strongly that it would increase interest in viewership. The general viewing public is tuning in to a two-hour show, and within the first five minutes, 42 girls are gone. [The audience] barely even gets to see their faces.”
For its part, ABC declined to comment, but issued the following statement: “ABC has always been proud to broadcast the Miss America pageant. Throughout our history, we worked enthusiastically with the show to make it an exciting annual event through creative evolution of the show itself and aggressive marketing campaigns. We wish the Miss America Organization continued success in all their future endeavors.”
For better or for worse, Miss America is married to television, and it may soon find a new home on a cable network such as Oxygen, A&E or USA, which could breathe new life into the program. The move to a cable network would be difficult, though, given the hefty $5.6 million fee ABC paid to Miss America last year.
“I don’t think a cable outlet can sustain the kind of license fee they were getting for broadcast,” says Miss Universe’s Shugart.
Meanwhile, the MAO is still trying to sell the idea that Miss America isn’t just a beauty pageant, but a serious scholarship program that hands out upwards of $50 million each year on the local and national levels. That’s why contestants are required to have a platform: a cause for which the winner can speak as she travels the country.
“In as much as I believe the pageant has failed over the years, it has been able to empower women to have a voice, to be able to speak out politically and have a relevant place in society,” says Cornett, whose own platform was the politically sensitive AIDS awareness and education. “I know it sounds funny, because they’re still parading around in swimsuits. But I know the job that I did. I was able to make a huge change in the AIDS community and that, in itself, makes it worth having a pageant.”