Miss America beauty pageant tries to improve its image

One year after she left home in search of better fortunes, Miss America has gone totally Hollywood.

She has her own reality TV show and a catchy new ringtone and she is giving away cash to lucky viewers. She is competing in a "pageant" again, rather than the politically correct - and some say boring - "scholarship program" of the past.

After years of struggling for relevance and viewers, the Miss America Pageant and its cable network host are trying to market the beauty contest back into the American cultural conscience.

"There was a time when everyone knew Miss America's name, but the brand has slipped a little," said Sam Haskell, a former executive at the William Morris Agency and now chairman of the board of directors of the Miss America Organization.

"We thought it was time to repolish the brand."

There are few who would argue the aging beauty queen does not need the help. After years as a Saturday-night television event, the pageant lost viewers in the 1990s, eventually losing its network contract in 2004. Country Music Television picked her up and moved her to Las Vegas last year, hoping the hype would draw new viewers.

The move generally was viewed as a success.

The pageant aired a combined 20 times on CMT, owned by Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks, and its sister-network VH1, the network said. Although just 3.1 million viewers watched the show live - less than one-third the viewers she last found on ABC - a total of 36 million people saw the show, including the replays. Even the traditionalists could not argue with that exposure.

"You can't stay status quo in this day and age or you get left behind," said Maris Schad, the volunteer executive director of the Miss Nebraska state pageant. "You've got to find out what the public wants and try and do a little tweaking that catches their interest."

This year's marketing campaign amounts to more than a tweak. CMT, reaching 83 million households, will have run more than nine hours of Miss America-related programming before the 52 contestants take the stage for the Monday, Jan. 29 crowning.

The TV blitz includes "Total Access: Miss America," a behind-the-scenes look at life under the crown, and a "Greatest Miss America Moments" special.

The new lineup also features a reality TV special, "Pageant School: Becoming Miss America," shot in Los Angeles and scheduled to air in the days before the pageant on CMT, VH1, MTV and Logo. The show follows the women through a regimen of training tips imparted by former winners and pageant "challenges" that present unanticipated obstacles, such as the question posed to Miss Nebraska: "If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?"

"I would like to have a photogenic memory," she replied, flashing an unknowing pageant smile.

Interested fans in search of a ringtone can download a version of longtime host Bert Parks' classic "There She Is, Miss America." Others can log online to play the "Pick & Win Game," which promises $1 million (EUR 770,000) to the person who successfully predicts the top finalists and the winner.

This is not the Miss America Pageant of old, which began as a bathing revue in 1921 and by the mid-1990s began referring to itself as a scholarship program to emphasize substance over superficiality.

"For years it was almost an insult to call it this a beauty pageant," said Gerdeen Dyer, a longtime fan and owner of the industry Web site Pageant.com.

"Now, I'll hear people say flat out, we've got a great-looking girl. I think people realize you've got to make this appeal to the mainstream - and that's about beauty."

Focus groups told researchers they thought past contestants, many of them products of years in state pageant systems, looked "dated." Executives aiming to attract the 18- to 34-year-old demographic brought in a sexier swimsuit line and sent out letters advising contestants to tone down the makeup and update the style.

"You don't need people in the back of the house to see all that makeup. We have television cameras, we'll take care of that," executive producer Sarah Brock said.

Focus groups asked for other updates, too - most borrowed from reality TV.

During the pageant, the camera will cut away to show reactions from the judges, including actress Delta Burke and MSNBC news host Chris Matthews. Interviews with judges will be aired to give viewers a better understanding of how the winners are chosen.

Viewers will be able to cast votes, online or in text messages, for Miss Congeniality, an honor previously awarded by other contestants. (Contestants also have a say, but are not allowed to vote for themselves.)

There will be text message voting on viewer favorites in the swimsuit, evening gown and talent competitions. The results will air during the broadcast, although the contestants and the judges will not see them.

Some are quick to note that Miss America has been here before. Previous experiment with game show and reality TV elements did not keep Miss America from being dropped by ABC, the AP reports.

Brock said CMT is taking the same approach with the pageant as it takes with country music, another institution once declared dated.

"This is not changing its essence, we're just trying to take a different point of view. Sometimes things don't get the attention they deserve," she said.

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