TV's Miss America turns 50

The pageant that people love to hate looks to reality TV for a ratings boost

Reality TV has invaded even the staid Miss America pageant. In a perennial effort to attract more viewers, the pageant's finals, which air on ABC this Saturday, will pit the two final contestants against each other in the talent competition.

Such a move, along with cameras backstage to capture the hustle and hairspray, is an effort to make the show - celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first telecast - appear more hip to audiences hooked on reality shows. That first program in 1954 drew 27 million viewers - more than double the number who watched in 2003.

Producers have even hired Chris Harrison, host of ABC's reality shows "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," to emcee.

These are the latest efforts to gussy up the quaint program that allows people to root for the home-state girl while scrutinizing what defines beauty today. But relying on the ritualistic appeal of the show may no longer be enough. Competitions between attractive people - in sports, dating, and makeovers - are easy to find on TV. Today, it's the politics of ratings, more than political correctness of pageants, that create controversy for the telecast.

"The trap they fall into is trying to compete so blatantly with these other shows, with the reality shows," says Bill Goodykoontz, TV critic at the Arizona Republic newspaper. "Nobody is ever going to look at the Miss America pageant, and think, 'Man that is hip, that is really cool.' But they might look at it and think, 'You know it's fun, it's a throwback.' "

In recent years the telecast - which has appeared on ABC, NBC, and CBS - has gone through a variety of changes: The women are now required to take part in a multiple-choice quiz (on pop culture or United States history, for example), and two-piece bathing suits are allowed, as is "casual wear."

Despite criticism by feminists and newspaper columnists that the swimsuit competition was demeaning to women, that portion of the broadcast has survived. In fact, a reported plan to scrap it in 1995 was dropped after viewers voted it down, and when polled more recently, they said they wouldn't watch without it.

The criticism has been diluted in recent years, as the pageant's bathing beauties seem tame compared with midriff-baring model wannabes all over TV.

"I don't know that competing on 'Fear Factor' in your bikini is necessarily the greatest image for women either, but [the pageant] seems to have moved past that particular controversy," says Mr. Goodykoontz.

Despite ambivalence toward beauty pageants, more women than men actually watch the show: 68 percent to 32 percent, respectively.

After much discussion, producers made other changes this year, including the talent portion of the contest. In addition to the competition between the final two, the broadcast will also show a montage of the Top 10 finalists' performances, in an effort to streamline the show from three hours to two.

"Obviously 'Miss America' would love to have all [the contestants perform] on TV, but ... you have to look back and say what was successful, what was not," says Art McMaster, head of the Miss America Organization, which along with state and local affiliates provided more than $45 million in cash and college scholarships in 2003.

"Miss America" is right up there with the Academy Awards and the Emmys in its TV longevity. Early organizers of the pageant - which has been around since the 1920s - were reluctant to put it on television, concerned they'd lose the ticket sales that helped pay their expenses. When they finally did make a deal with ABC back in the '50s, the 1954 telecast was a relatively simple affair. The broadcast joined the competition already under way, showing a retrospective of the participants and finalists, responses to questions from remaining contenders, and then announcing the winner: aspiring actress Lee Meriwether.

Until that point, the public's contact with the pageant was largely limited to what they saw in newsreels after the crowning. "TV focused on the way that people were selected as winners, which had never really been part of the pageantry before that. It had always been about the winners appearing in public in a parade or a festival," says Richard Wilk, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at Indiana University, and an editor of the 1995 book, "Beauty Queens on the Global Stage." "How they were picked wasn't even part of the entertainment. Now it's all the entertainment," he says.

That observation is not lost on the show's current executive producer, Bob Bain.

"I believe that these beauty pageants can be contemporized to the point where they're still considered compelling television," says Mr. Bain, now in his fourth year with the program. "I've felt from the very beginning that in order for this franchise ultimately to succeed it needs to adopt the same principles, generally speaking, that have made reality television as popular as it is today."

Viewers expect to get to know the contestants better, he says, and his efforts are aimed in part at doing as much of that as he can in a two-hour telecast. But he doesn't want to import all of reality TV.

"I have never believed that reality requires negativity," he says. "What's important is that you get a true glimpse into the interests and the desires and the emotions of your contestants. If done properly - and we're trying to do that this year - you can do that without having to go into the negative basket."

Over the past few years, though, changes to the telecast haven't made much difference. Last year, 10.3 million people tuned in, down from 12 million in 2002 and about 20 million in the late '80s, despite an appearance on last year's show by "American Idol" darling, Clay Aiken.

TV critic Goodykoontz is not a fan of the retooling, saying that tweaks this year in particular smack of desperation. The pageant has an old-timey, variety-show feel to it, he argues, and it should just be allowed to be what it is.

"It's hard to make the claim for its relevance, but I don't think that means it doesn't belong on TV," he says. "If there's room for 'Fear Factor' and 27 variations of 'The Bachelor,' and 'American Idol' ... it seems to me that once a year there is room for this."

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