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The 88-year-old Miss America pageant is more than a television show for some. To its most die-hard devotees, it's a venerated source of scholarships for polished young women across the country.
updated 1/21/2009 12:26:41 PM ET 2009-01-21T17:26:41

It's been slow and not necessarily painless, but Miss America is moving into the 21st century — one well-practiced, high-heeled step at a time.

Last year she got a reality show, complete with absurd challenges and snarky judges. Then she was given an updated look, courtesy of the makeover specialists at the cable network TLC, her current television home.

This year, she's moving closer to the viewer-voting format that made “American Idol” a star.

For the first time, four contestants will be voted into the pageant finals by viewers of “Miss America: Countdown to the Crown,” the four-part reality series culminating Friday on TLC. The viewer favorites will be named along with 11 other finalists at the pageant airing live at 8 p.m. EST Saturday from the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.

“America's going to have a much greater impact than they've ever had before,” said Brent Zackey, vice president for production and development at TLC. “We thought it would be great to really make the whole scheme of the reality show about America getting to know these women and letting them focus in on the women they would vote in to the finals.”

In another time, this could have been pageant heresy.

The 88-year-old Miss America pageant is more than a television show for some. To its most die-hard devotees, it's a venerated source of scholarships for polished young women across the country. Its judges are trained how to evaluate young beauties for poise, talent and smarts. Its participants are prepped on how to measure up to those benchmarks.

The masses aren't supposed to pick the princess.

Miss America Organization President Art McMaster said he assured the pageant faithful there would be an upside to the new arrangement. More contestants are getting a shot at the crown.

“With pageant people, we just explained to them that rather than having a top 10, we're going to have a top 15. It's a win-win for both sides,” he said.

Pageant fans have had to learn to roll with the punches in recent years.

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The change is just the latest in the continuing search for a new audience for a venerable institution. After years of sinking ratings, ABC dropped the pageant in 2005, forcing it to uproot from the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey to the Las Vegas Strip. The pageant also moved to cable television, where only a fraction of the revenue and viewers were waiting.

Without a network television contract, the amount of scholarship money awarded plummeted. In 2007, the Miss America Organization distributed $445,000 in scholarships, less than half the total four years earlier, according to the nonprofit's federal tax returns. This year's winner takes a $50,000 scholarship along with a year of travel and public appearances.

Last year's pageant was a bright night for Miss America. The number of viewers rose 50 percent over the previous year's airing on Country Music Television. The lead-in reality series "Miss America: Reality Check" appeared to have drawn new viewers by promising to make over and mock the contestants' dated style. Updates to the live pageant broadcast loosened things up.

A favorite moment for those involved: When Miss Utah 2008 Jill Stevens, an Army medic who was voted into the finals by viewers, dropped and gave the crowd push-ups. It wasn't exactly a YouTube moment, but it flashed a rare hint of spontaneity in a show that has in past years offered few unpracticed moments.

TLC is hoping for more Miss Utahs this year. Clinton Kelly, the sharp-tongued star of the network's “What Not to Wear,” will make a return appearance to pull some unscripted conversation from contestants. "Extra" host Mario Lopez will be master of ceremonies. He previously hosted the pageant in 2007.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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