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Miss America turns 50, but does anyone care?

The audience for the pageant continues to shrink
/ Source: The Associated Press

She may be Miss America, but for 50 years she’s been married to television.

The tube was contest’s link from its Atlantic City, N.J. home to millions of heartland living rooms, and it turned the winners into stars. But lately, the relationship has gotten bumpy as ratings dipped and TV executives took more control.

“If Miss America ever finds itself unable to be on television, I think it will probably go out of existence,” said Leonard Horn, a former Miss America Organization CEO. “I don’t think it can survive without television.”

As the pageant celebrates its golden anniversary on the small screen Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC, the show is getting its biggest makeover ever in hopes of reclaiming relevance in a world of multiplying entertainment options.

The master of ceremonies will be Chris Harrison, normally seen hosting “The Bachelor” and its sister show, “The Bachelorette.” The swimsuits will be provided by Speedo — and skimpier than ever. The program has been trimmed from three hours to two, but “off-the-cuff” backstage scenes have been added. And instead of seeing the talent performances of all five finalists, viewers will see only the final two.

Acting Miss America CEO Art McMaster disputes the notion that ABC has forced the competition to change, but says that the television show is the essence of Miss America.

“We’ve never shied away from the fact that television is the catalyst that promotes the whole Miss America system,” McMaster said. “It shows America what we’re all about.”

Alas, Miss America is no longer what it once was. In the 1950s and early 60s — before cable, satellite dishes and DVDs — the televised pageant was the Super Bowl of its day.

The golden age of the pageantTelevision’s money enabled Miss America, first held in 1921, to withstand the feminist backlash of the 1960s. Horn said that’s because the pageant’s scholarships kept women competing, sometimes despite their political objections.

Marie Hanson can testify to the power of those early broadcasts.

A former longtime chaperone for Miss Kansas, Hanson met Miss America through TV, while growing up on her family’s farm near a little town called Medicine Lodge.

“I remember definitely dressing up,” said Hanson, 62, who now lives in Pratt, Kan. “I’d have a towel sash pinned to my shoulder and there was my crown, probably made from a colander or a strainer.”

One of the most famous Miss Americas was the first to be crowned on television: Lee Meriwether, who in 1956 became one of the first women on NBC’s “Today” show and played Catwoman in the 1966 “Batman” movie.

Would she have gotten those breaks without her pageant being on television? “Probably not,” she said, “because what it offered was more recognition.”

Today, the program is not reaching as many young girls — or anyone else — as it once did. Some 27 million viewers saw the first televised Miss America coronation, making it one of the highest-rated moments in the history of television to that date. By 1960, the viewing audience had grown to 85 million.

But last year, 10.3 million viewers saw a scholarship competition won by Miss Florida, Ericka Dunlap.

Pageant officials and TV experts say the general shrinkage of the network television audience is partly responsible for Miss America’s long ratings slide.

But the event isn’t doing well compared with other programming. For example, prime-time coverage of the summer Olympics on NBC attracted at least 18 million viewers each night — and sometimes more than 30 million. Episodes of “CSI” competing with the Olympics drew bigger audiences than last year’s Miss America.

Not must-see TV anymoreRobert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said it’s remarkable that the show has lasted as long as it has. He said he watches because it’s part of his job, not because he enjoys it.

“What Miss America used to do, there were not a lot of opportunities to see that kind of thing that Miss America afforded: women parading across the stage in bathing suits and evening gowns,” Thompson said.

Then came 1970s shows such as “Charlie’s Angles” and “Fantasy Island,” full of scantily clad women, followed by plenty of cable programs that left even less to the imagination.

On the other hand, Miss America has all the elements of some of today’s most-watched reality television shows, from “American Idol” to “Survivor,” Thompson said: “It’s a contest that eliminates people and features beautiful young women. Those are hardly the kinds of things that are the kiss of death of a television show.”

The competition has been trying mightily to tap that reality appeal. The organization has tried giving viewers a vote, but has now nixed the idea. A pop quiz was added in 2002 to dispel the myth that the beauties lack brains.

Last year, the contestants for the first time competed in a casual-wear competition along with swimsuits and evening gowns, and there was live commentary from “The Bachelorette” couple Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter as they watched on TV.

While Miss America may be losing traction among the population as a whole, it’s still the big time for the small universe of people who host major television events.

“For me,” said Harrison, the host, “it’s a chance to play in Yankee Stadium, so to speak.”