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Miss America goes a little bit country

Pageant will get a reality-show overhaul, broadcast on CMT network
/ Source: news services

Miss America’s goin’ country.

Spurned by viewers and ditched by ABC television, America’s oldest beauty pageant will be broadcast on a country music cable channel next year and organizers hope fans will start loving her again thanks to a reality-TV style make-over.

Cable network Country Music Television said Monday it will rework the pageant to combine traditional elements with a behind-the-scenes look at contestants.

The pageant, traditionally held in September or October, won’t crown its next winner until January. And it may not happen in Atlantic City, where Miss America was born as a Labor Day publicity stunt in 1921.

Pageant officials, who spent months trying to find a new network after losing the ABC deal last October, said no determination had been made whether it would remain here.

An icon of American broadcasting, the competition was dropped by ABC last year after the audience for the annual pageant broadcast from Atlantic City fell to 9.8 million viewers, the lowest since its TV debut in 1954. The event attracted just 6.4 percent of the national TV audience, down from some 40 percent during the 1960s.

Officials hope the new show will focus on individual contestants in a series of programs preceding the broadcast of the final pageant that will take place in January 2006.

“The audience looks at the pageant without the benefit of seeing these women and knowing them as real people,” Paul Villadolid of CMT told Reuters in an interview. “The stakes become a lot higher if you can connect with these women.”

Villadolid was cautious about the comparison to reality TV shows such as “American Idol,” where contestants face harsh criticism from celebrity judges.

“If it had gone to another network, it would have become a mean-spirited kind of program,” he said.

'Shared values'Villadolid said Miss America fits well with the traditional values of CMT, whose regular fare ranges from George Jones’s classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and Tammy Wynette’s ”Stand by Your Man” to reruns of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Art McMaster, chief executive of the Miss America organization, unsuccessfully pitched other networks in hopes of remaining on broadcast television. McMaster said Miss America would get more viewers if its preliminary competitions — three nights of talent, swimsuit and evening wear — were aired, giving people a chance to get to know the contestants.

“We have a lot of shared values, small-town values, rooting for the underdog,” he said. “Our network represents the core values of our viewers.”

But that doesn’t mean the show will become more conservative, said Jenni Glenn, a spokeswoman for the organization. “Keeping our traditional elements doesn’t mean taking a step back and making it more conservative.”

Villadolid declined to say whether there would be any changes to the swimsuit competition, which attracted criticism last year because of the revealing nature of the costumes that contestants were required to wear.

Last year’s contest was also criticized for the reduction in its talent component in response to sagging TV audience numbers for that portion of the previous year’s broadcast.

VH1 tie-inCMT is hoping the new format will generate a TV audience comparable to the CMT Music Awards, which attracted 15.8 million viewers, or about 50 percent more than last year’s Miss America audience, over its five airings last year.

“Miss America is sort of a heartland kind of event,” said media analyst Larry Gerbrandt. “It’s Mom, Dad, the flag and apple pie. That’s their demographic.”

McMaster declined to disclose financial terms. Negotiations with Atlantic City authorities about staging next year’s show are underway.

The event’s educational goals will remain unchanged, officials said. Last year, it provided some $45 million in educational support for young women.

CMT, based in Nashville, is owned by media giant Viacom, which also owns music channels MTV and VH1. VH1 will air “supportive programming” leading up to the pageant in hopes of drumming up interest with viewers, according to the deal.

The move to cable represents a comedown of sorts, but some see it as a good marriage.

“It’s a great alternative to a national outlet,” said former CEO Leonard Horn. “It’s a good cable network. If it’s properly promoted — and they certainly have the ability, with MTV and VH1 — the millions of loyal Miss America fans will watch it.”