Makeover for Miss America

Feb 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Having been unceremoniously dumped by ABC last year, Miss America is seeking a reality-style makeover.

The venerable beauty/ talent pageant has signed with the William Morris Agency and is shopping a refashioned version of the annual event, pitching the pageant as a multi-episode reality series complete with behind-the-scenes drama and gradual elimination of contestants.

“We consider ourselves the first reality TV,” said Art McMaster, Miss America’s president and CEO. “Last year we realized our once-a-year show wasn’t cutting the cake. We saw reality shows like `American Idol’ passing us by. We feel America has got to get to know our contestants.”

Once a premiere event as important as the Super Bowl and Oscars are today, Miss America has been staged since 1921. It is without a network broadcaster for the first time in 50 years. The Miss America pageant was once a ratings powerhouse-in 1961 it drew a 75 share. ABC chose not to renew its contract after the Sept. 18, 2004, telecast drew a record low of 9.8 million viewers. In 2003 the contest drew 10.3 million.

Spread out over about half a dozen episodes, the new Miss America would borrow from other reality shows. Mr. McMaster said the plan is for cameras to track beauty contestants from state contests through regional competitions, finally culminating in the traditional live two-hour finale. The series would likely include biographical profiles.

The series would document not only the onstage competitions but also the backstage squabbles and relationships among the pageant directors and judges. Even the name of the series is up for negotiation, though Mr. McMaster said it will almost certainly include “Miss America” as part of the title.

“They want to do really up-close-and-personal storytelling, showing the process and relationships between the girls, their families and the pageant directors, so by the time you actually have the pageant you really know who they are,” said John Ferriter, senior VP and head of network alternative packaging for William Morris.

Analysts said the refashioning can only help the franchise.

“Miss America was the highest-rated show on TV in 1961; since then their audience has been halved, and halved and halved again,” said Brad Adgate of Horizon Media. “If you could stretch it over a few nights, [the audience] might be able to get to know the contestants.”

Larry Gerbrandt, a television analyst at the consulting firm Alix Partners, agreed.

“It would definitely be more interesting as a multiple-date event,” Mr. Gerbrandt said. “One of the things about Miss America is you knew there were things that go on behind the scenes, but at best they were shown as little snippets. In many respects, the event is ready-made for a reality series.”

Last year ABC paid a reported $5.9 million for the rights to air the pageant amid reports of squabbling between the network and pageant organizers. ABC reduced the length of the broadcast from three to two hours and sought to eliminate the talent competition segment. Organizers said talent competition will remain part of the new version.

ABC signed the competition in 1996. Pageant insiders said the 1997 departure of former ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert left Miss America without an executive to champion the show, and the pageant languished because it “wasn’t a priority for ABC anymore.”

Analysts said Miss America will not attract a network the size of ABC, or a $5.9 million license fee, this year. But cable networks such as USA, A&E, TNT, Oxygen and E! are considered potential targets, as is UPN.

One programming executive at a major cable channel said he has turned down Miss America in the past and isn’t interested in a revamped version. “If it didn’t work for two hours, why would it work for 12?” he said, adding that the contest tends to appeal to older viewers.

The executive’s sentiment is exactly the sort of impression the pageant is trying to overcome-not only among network executives but also among viewers.

The pageant also faces competition from the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, both of which are co-owned by NBC and Donald Trump. In a sly bit of cross-promotion, last year Miss USA contestants appeared on NBC’s “Fear Factor” to hype the contest among younger viewers. Both NBC pageants outperformed Miss America last year.

Though Miss America is considered the oldest and most prestigious of national beauty pageants, it has developed a more stodgy reputation in recent years compared with the newer contests.

Last year Miss America flirted with reality TV touches by having former “American Idol” contestant Clay Aiken sing the pageant theme song, “There She Is, Miss America,” putting “The Bachelor’s” Chris Harrison in as host and giving viewers occasional backstage glimpses.

Mr. McMaster said the Miss America contest itself will not change, only the presentation-and, yes, that includes keeping the swimsuit competition. “Absolutely,” Mr. McMaster said. “[The swimsuit competition] has been there since the beginning. It’s part of our history.”