How about Miss Arkansas in a cat fight with Miss Texas? Or Miss Alaska plotting with Miss Tennessee to get Miss Maine voted off the runway? Or a swimsuit contest featuring bikini-clad women walking the runway while covered in leeches?
For Miss America, such scenarios would’ve been unthinkable once — when all it took to win was a fetching smile, a modicum of talent and a tight swimsuit.
But Miss America’s in for an extreme makeover.
Dropped by two networks as a ratings loser, the pageant is desperately in need of a lifeline of its own, apparently ready to shuck its squeaky-clean demeanor in favor of the snarky negativity that fuels reality TV.
The pageant has reluctantly embraced the craze in recent years, tweaking its age-old formula by adding a pop quiz, curtailing the talent competition and interviewing contestants backstage — to no avail.
There is more urgency now, though. Cast off by ABC after a record-low 9.8 million people tuned in for last September’s pageant, Miss America is without a TV outlet for the first time in 50 years and is facing the prospect of having no pageant at all in 2005.
Miss America officials, who have hired talent agency William Morris and made several trips to California to pitch TV producers and executives in recent months, declined repeated requests for comment on the status of their hunt for a new spot on the dial.
“What we are proposing out in Los Angeles is that we open up the sacred doors of Miss America,” Miss America Organization CEO Art McMaster recently told The New York Times.
Strong stomachs and poise and grace
Whether the pageant is ready to resort to “Fear Factor”-inspired gross-outs, “Survivor”-style conniving or week-to-week eliminations a la “American Idol” remains to be seen. If the fates of rival Miss USA are any indication, though, future contestants may need strong stomachs more than singing ability.
In a “Fear Factor Miss USA” that aired before the Miss USA pageant earlier this month, five bikini-wearing contestants had 55-gallon drums of live worms, fish and fish oil dumped on them during one stunt.
Is that the future of Miss America?
“Oh, God, I hope not,” said Bob Arnhym, who runs the Miss California Scholarship Pageant.
“I think the audience that watches reality TV has a coliseum mentality. They are cheering for the lion, not the gladiator. I don’t know at what price we’re prepared to pander to that audience. But anything that is degrading to them, or humiliating, or holds them up to public ridicule, none of those things are going to be acceptable,” he said.
Founded in 1921 as a bathing beauty contest on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Miss America took to the air in 1954 and was a ratings darling for decades. It offered a little leg, the trappings of royalty and a live crowning to a viewing public that had almost no other place to ogle pretty, scantily clad young women.
At its peak, more than 80 million viewers tuned in to watch Bert Parks crown some small-town unknown and send her down the runway in Convention Hall. But that was before the communications revolution put cable TV, Internet porn and catty reality shows in everyone’s homes.
Now, Miss America — the TV show — isn’t able to compete, although competitors Miss USA and Miss Universe are still on the air, thanks in part to the fact that they are co-owned by NBC and Donald Trump.
Viewers, it seems, would rather see young beauties get down and dirty than listen to them play Chopin or talk about world peace.
The “Fear Factor Miss USA” show drew 9.2 million viewers, compared to 8.1 million for Miss USA, which followed it on NBC, according to Nielsen Media Research. It’s the third year in a row Miss USA has been preceded by a “Fear Factor Miss USA.”
Each time, the lead-in drew more viewers than the pageant itself.
Time to hang up her sash?
Some longtimers, however, would rather see Miss America hang up her sash than resort to such things.
“If they’re looking at that kind of thing to save the program, then forget it,” said 68-year-old Lois Elaine Smith-Zoll of Vancouver, Wash., who has been involved in the Miss America system as a volunteer and state pageant judge for 39 years. “That’s not what we’re about.”
McMaster has said he’d like to see Miss America become a serial, with several weeks of shows building up to the one where they choose Miss America. The idea: to help viewers get to know the contestants and root for them, which is next to impossible with the pageant airing once a year, for two hours on a Saturday night in September.
Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization, said Miss America has suffered because its contestants have become too polished for viewers to relate to.
“A Miss America has to have this image of being this wholesome, holier-than-thou, up-on-a-pedestal woman. In this day and age of reality TV, when people want the nitty gritty and the foibles, that’s diametrically opposed. You really need to get to real women letting their hair down,” Shugart said.
But persuading a network to devote prime-time spots to a franchise that has proven it can’t hold on to viewers — the pageant has been dropped by two networks in the last eight years — may not be possible for Miss America.
“What they’ve been doing no longer works,” said former pageant staffer Angela Osborne, author of “Miss America: The Dream Lives On. “It just can’t continue in its present form.”