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Can Sin City breathe life into ‘Miss America’?

Organizers hope the new city and hunky host can revitalize the contest
/ Source: The Associated Press

They’ll tap dance, sing and glide around the stage. They’ll don glitzy costumes, bathing suits and bright smiles in a quest for big money and a chance to see their names in lights.

Just don’t call them showgirls.

On Saturday, 52 driven, young beauties will arrive in Las Vegas to begin the weeklong whirlwind Miss America pageant. The televised finale airs Jan. 21, 8 p.m. ET. It will be the first time in the annual pageant’s 85-year history that the winner will be crowned outside Atlantic City, N.J., a move designed to use Sin City sexiness to stop the show’s slipping TV ratings and declining popularity.

It’s also the first time the show will air on MTV Network’s Country Music Television, a cable channel with red-state roots and a Kenny Chesney-loving following. And, instead of the usual talk-show type host, the pageant this year will be fronted by flat-out TV hunk James Denton of “Desperate Housewives.”

Can ‘Miss America’ survive?The many changes raise one big question, a sad one for longtime viewers to even contemplate: What happens if the pageant’s latest incarnation doesn’t revive the venerated, but creaky, Mom-and-apple pie institution? Is “Miss America’s” survival on the line?

“I don’t even want to go there,” said Art McMaster, chief executive officer of the Atlantic City-based Miss America Organization, a not-for-profit group that, along with affiliates, makes $45 million in scholarships available to women each year, including $50,000 to the winner.

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McMaster notes the organization has entered into a multiyear contract with CMT. He said he hopes the move to a cable network draws new viewers and sets up new, lower expectations for the show’s television ratings.

“Will we ever get 20 million viewers again? You know and I know that’s never going to happen,” he said. “But as long as get we the long-time pageant fans watching, we’ll be around another 85 years.”

So it is, the pageant’s organizers hope it’s a case of back to the future for “Miss America” — a mix of the old with a strong dollop of the Las Vegas-supplied new.

In an attempt to cater to its die-hard followers, producers say they plan to restore the show to its earlier glory by ditching a quiz show and a casual-wear competition, elements recently borrowed from reality television and game shows to try to give the pageant a more updated feel. A record low 9.8 million viewers watched the show on ABC in 2004, a 20 percent drop since 2000 and about half the viewership that watched in 1984.

“Basic values and tradition, that is what we brought the show back to,” said McMaster.

Sin City backdropBut he also acknowledges traditional values and scholarship contests don’t always make for great television. That’s where Las Vegas comes in.

“We’re so proud of what we do all year long. However, once the show is on, it can’t be just all about highlighting traditional values. We’ve got to show we can put on a very entertaining show,” he said. “Quite honestly, no other city has the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is what our show is all about.”

Pageant watchers are quick to point out the irony.

While conceived in 1921 as a way to keep tourists on Atlantic City’s boardwalk after Labor Day, the Miss America pageant quickly and intentionally evolved into a symbol of modesty and feminine pluck. The first Miss America, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, D.C., was hailed in The New York Times as “the type of womanhood America needs, strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests.”

“It never has been about glamour or spectacle, all those things that represent Vegas,” said Sarah Banet-Weiser, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and author of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity.” “Its rhetoric has been that it’s much more about respectability and typicality than it is about showcasing a kind of glamorous model-type woman.”

But organizers see Miss America and Las Vegas as a marriage made in media heaven. The move west let the contestants start 11-days of buildup with publicity events in Los Angeles, smiling for television critics at a conference and appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” The old-fashioned parade in convertibles down the boardwalk has been replaced in Las Vegas with a Hollywood-style red carpet ceremony outside the Aladdin hotel-casino, the show’s host. Contestants are set to arrive on the Strip in luxury coaches decked out like rock stars’ tour buses.

Paul Villadolid, vice president of programming for CMT, says the network picked Las Vegas over Orlando, Fla., and Nashville because the city knows how to put on a show.

“We were interested in doing a big production, we wanted to have access to the top talent. We just knew that was the perfect location,” he said.

Catering to country fansWhile Denton will be handling the hosting, producers are keeping mum on a special guest who will, a la longtime host Bert Parks, croon the crowning rendition of “There She Is, Miss America.”

The show will play to CMT viewers, a group Villadolid says are nearly 55 percent women, less cynical than other TV-watchers and tune in to programs seeking storytelling and emotional connection.  

Villadolid adds that CMT executives are hoping the show lures an audience comparable in size to its 2005 Country Music Awards, which had 9.9 million viewers.

“If it’s anywhere close to that it’s a success,” he said.

Toward that end, CMT has been airing short segments on the contestants to help viewers get to know them better, and the top 10 contestants’ profiles will air during the show. Some of the video clips will show Denton interacting backstage with the women so viewers can see them in a less-scripted setting.

Miss Congeniality, a title awarded to a competitor by her peers, will make a comeback after being pulled from the show in 1974. Each segment of the pageant, such as the evening-gown competition, will be introduced by clips of historical highlights. The final selection process goes from 10 to five and then to three finalists to help build suspense.

“Backstory and context and emotional connection, we’ve worked very hard to instill those elements in the show,” Villadolid said.

Besides it renowned glitz, Las Vegas has a history of supplying redemption. More than most anywhere else, the city looks kindly on reinvention, said Michael Green, a history professor at the Community College of Southern Nevada.

Green notes that many events ranging from Elvis Presley shows to the National Finals Rodeo have found new audiences and renewed momentum in the city with a high-profile, insatiable appetite for entertainment and eclectic tastes.

Aladdin hopes pageant can work magicEven Miss America’s 2006 venue is looking to cash in on the revival. The original Aladdin hotel-casino was imploded in 1998 to make room for the current Middle Eastern-themed resort, which declared bankruptcy shortly after it reopened. The casino is in the process of “de-theming” itself into a more-than $700 million Planet Hollywood mega-resort. It’s banking on the pageant to help with its own makeover and usher in an era of big production shows.

As a brand, Miss America has remarkable recognition and draws intense media coverage, casino co-chairman Robert Earl said. “It fits in with our strategy.”

Aladdin’s contract with the pageant gives it the right of first refusal should the Miss America Organization decide to return to Las Vegas next year.

McMaster hasn’t said if the pageant plans to relocate permanently, and there has been talk the show might be held in different cities each year.

That decision may depend on how the pageant is received by Las Vegas and how the Miss America faithful react to the switch. Unlike some of the runners-up, Las Vegas doesn’t have much of a pageant tradition of its own. When it puts on a show with pretty women, the costumes tend to involve pasties and feathers, not evening gowns.

Miss Atomic Blast, a young woman crowned in the late 1950s with a mushroom cloud pinned to her body, never got much traction, Green said. Only 13 women competed for the title of Miss Nevada last year. The winner, 23-year-old Crystal Wosik of Las Vegas got involved largely to earn money for college. She says she’s never even seen a Miss America pageant on TV.

Still, some hope that support will come with time. For now, many pageant fans are happy to see their beloved get a fresh start in a new city.