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Future of Miss America competition uncertain
Updated: 2004-10-21 09:50

ABC has dropped Miss America, leaving the famous beauty pageant without a TV outlet for the first time in 50 years.

Miss Alabama Diedre Downs models her swimsuit during final night competition in the Miss America pageant at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 18, 2004. Downs was later named Miss America 2005. [Reuters]
The network, which had carried the annual telecast since 1997 with a series of one-year contracts, notified Miss America Organization officials that they will not pick up the option this year, the pageant’s acting president and CEO, Arthur McMaster, said Wednesday.

“We are now free to pursue other parties who have expressed interest in our organization, and we are excited at the limitless opportunities that are now available for us to grow our brand,” he said.

The move, which comes after the Sept. 18 pageant drew a record low 9.8 million viewers, could jeopardize the foundation of a program that grew from an Atlantic City publicity stunt into a highly rated TV staple, largely on the strength of the contest and crowning beamed into millions of living rooms each September.

Since Lee Meriwether was crowned on Sept. 11, 1954, in the first televised pageant, Miss America has grown into a nonprofit corporation that makes available more than $40 million annually in scholarship aid and oversees 52 local pageants.

Miss America seeks relevance, ratings

But the pageant’s appeal to potential contestants, sponsors and fans hinges on the annual TV show, a live event whose glittery gowns, hokey talent acts and girl-next-door crownings fueled the fantasies of little girls for years.

Without network television to provide those images, Miss America faces an uncertain future.

“It’s certainly an ominous sign,” said former chief executive officer Leonard Horn. “Whether or not they can get a contract with another network is going to be very important.”

ABC officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rocky ratings

ABC, which took over Miss America after 30-year sponsor NBC lost interest in 1996, has had rocky relations with Miss America officials in recent years, in part because of sinking ratings.

McMaster, who had pressed the network to move Miss America to a weeknight and televise some part of its three nights of preliminary competition, said the pageant was happy to part ways with ABC.

“There’s already been companies that have contacted us and expressed an interest,” he said. “This thing’s been around for 84 years and it’ll be around for another 84. I’m not going to say I’m not worried, but I think there’s much more out there.”

The loss of its network sponsor deals the Miss America Organization a financial blow, too. In 2003, ABC paid $5.6 million for the rights to televise it.

“There’s no doubt, TV is the catalyst that keeps this company going. But it’s not a one-night-a-year organization. It’s a 52-weeks-a-year organization. We want to grow beyond that one night,” said McMaster.

Pageant officials believe that on a weeknight, Miss America would draw more viewers and reach young people more likely to be out than watching television on Saturday nights, when the contest airs.

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem for a cable network to pick it up. There’s a lot of niche networks that would pick it up because it’s such a familiar brand,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media, a media services company. “I could see them turning this into some form of reality show, where you stretch it over a few nights, these personalities become a little more familiar and you get to know them.”

He said it was unlikely that CBS, NBC or Fox would televise Miss America, which has three telecasts in the Nielsen ratings’ top 100 of all time (all in the early, mid-’60s).

Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for ad-buying firm Carat, said a women-oriented network like Lifetime or Oxygen might want Miss America, but the pageant will still be hard-pressed to compete with reality TV shows.

“It used to be that these pageants were much bigger events, because that’s all there was. Now, you have ‘The Swan,’ ‘America’s Top Model’ and all these reality competitions going on. With those type of shows, the viewer has more of a chance to connect than watching someone from some state in a sash and a bathing suit,” Brill said.

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