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|Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2005 - 11:56 am: ||
Can black contestants kiss that crown goodbye?
December 22, 2005
Miss America as She Used to Be
By JACQUES STEINBERG
NASHVILLE, Dec. 15 - When the Miss America Organization announced this year that its next pageant would be broadcast on Country Music Television - a basic cable channel where, heretofore, the standard of poise and elegance was probably set by Daisy Duke strutting past the General Lee in popular reruns of "The Dukes of Hazzard" - die-hard followers of the competition worried that an American icon was about to get chicken-fried.
As it turns out, fans of the pageant, which will be broadcast live from Las Vegas on Jan. 21, can put to rest those premonitions of Willie Nelson tying a bejeweled bandanna onto the head of the winner while Billy Ray Cyrus croons, "There she is, Miss America."
Instead, CMT, a unit of Viacom that bought the rights to the pageant after its contract with ABC expired last year, says it is determined to restore the contest's luster, turning back the clock to those gauzy days long before it became freighted with reality-show gimmicks and before its audience - which at its peak in the 1960's included three of every four households in the country - tuned out in droves.
To that end, CMT, in partnership with the Miss America Organization, has jettisoned a casual-wear competition that was added in recent years, as well as a multiple-choice civics quiz that had pitted five finalists against one another on a "Jeopardy"-style set pumped with an ominous soundtrack seemingly borrowed from "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
Also gone in January will be a head-to-head talent contest between the two remaining finalists that had been added last year and was meant to channel "American Idol."
In case anyone missed that hint, Clay Aiken, the runner-up in the second season of "Idol," was on hand last year to sing, "There she is ..." - imagine Bert Parks's hair restyled with gel and spikes - as was Chris Harrison, the host of "The Bachelor," who acted as master of ceremonies and gentle executioner. Neither will be back in January.
Instead, viewers will see what CMT intends as a more genteel, glamorous competition - albeit one staged for the first time in its 85-year history in Las Vegas, and not Atlantic City, and shown for the first time in its 52-year history as a televised special on cable, and not a major network.
In place of the stiff blue jeans and halter tops that made some onstage segments last year seem like a debutante's bad idea of casual Friday, CMT will emphasize evening wear, with sashes bearing state names - little seen in recent years - again draped prominently across the contestants' long gowns throughout the night so viewers can better chart their progress. Also returning in January - for the first time since 1974 - will be Miss Congeniality, an honor bestowed on one of the 52 contestants (representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands) by her peers.
And instead of reducing the talent competition to a montage of edited highlights of the final 10 contestants engaged in baton-twirling, jazz-dancing and furious classical piano playing - as ABC did in recent years - CMT will present full-length performances of the final five contestants. The host will be James Denton, plucked from one of the most popular scripted programs on television, "Desperate Housewives."
"We want to get the pageant back to the one we most remember from the collective childhood of everyone involved," said Brian Philips, 43, executive vice president and general manager of CMT, who recalls watching Mr. Parks (the host from 1955 through 1979) with his parents while growing up in South Florida. "Our viewers, Americans, harbor some really intense and deep feelings about the idea of Miss America. We've got to get it right. We've got to make it matter."
Art McMaster, president and chief executive of the Miss America Organization, which awards nearly $50 million in scholarships through the local, state and national rounds of the annual competition, said he welcomed CMT's inclination to prune the broadcast to its roots.
"These last few years, we've been playing games with the show," Mr. McMaster said. "We saw all these reality shows that had been out there, that had been very successful. But that doesn't mean everything needs to become that."
In trying to rebuild Miss America the television show, CMT would seem, at first glance, to be an unlikely architect.
This is a channel probably best known for music videos of newly minted country stars (Kenny Chesney and Big and Rich), tributes to the genre's most grizzled veterans (the show "Outlaws," which has featured Mr. Nelson and Merle Haggard) and for its dream-team pairings of country singers with those associated with other styles (the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor, for example) on the concert show "Crossroads."
Even the Miss America Organization would have probably preferred a mainstream broadcast network. But the days when the pageant was considered must-see TV on the scale of the Academy Awards or Super Bowl have long since passed: the estimated 9.8 million viewers who watched the last Miss America broadcast, in September 2004 on ABC, represented less than half of the 20.9 million who watched a decade earlier, barely a third of the 28.2 million who watched a decade before that, according to Nielsen Media Research. (Earlier this year, by contrast, the Oscars drew an audience of 42.1 million and the Super Bowl 86.1 million.)
But executives at CMT are convinced that, however diminished, the program remains immensely valuable. Though available in more than 78 million homes, CMT typically draws an average of about 320,000 viewers during an hour of its prime-time schedule, according to Nielsen. As CMT saw it, if on one night it could lure even a fraction of the almost 10 million who tuned in Miss America on ABC, it would probably be worth the effort, if for no other reason than its marquee marketing.
To the Miss America Organization, CMT represented far more than just a cable channel based here in Nashville near juke joints like Robert's Western World. As part of the Viacom stable, CMT can promote Miss America not just on its own channel but also on sister networks like VH1, its popular Web sites and on billboards near Viacom's corporate headquarters in Times Square, all of which the network intends to do. ABC paid more than $3 million to broadcast the pageant in the last year of what was an eight-year contract. Neither CMT nor the Miss America group would say how much CMT paid; the country network has committed to broadcast the pageant in 2006 and 2007, with options to do so through 2011.
No one within CMT lobbied more forcefully to get Miss America than Paul Villadolid, an MTV alumnus who is vice president of programming and development at CMT. Like the country channel itself, Mr. Villadolid would seem to be an unlikely suitor for Miss America: the son of Filipino immigrants, he was raised on Long Island and educated at two of the Northeast's better-known educational institutions, Hotchkiss, a prep school in northwestern Connecticut, and Middlebury College in Vermont.
Though the decline in interest in such pageants parallels the dramatic changes in women's lives and careers in recent decades, Mr. Villadolid nonetheless saw relevance. The women in their 20's who compete to become Miss America - nearly all of them college-bound and most from small towns - are not unlike those who form the foundation of the CMT audience. Mr. Villadolid said that in focus groups he convened among young women in Florida and Oklahoma, two states in which CMT enjoys some of its highest ratings, he was told that the Miss America pageant still mattered, as much, if not more, for its emphasis on scholarship and poise as for the contestants' beauty.
"We tend to live in a very cynical world," he said. "We known the CMT audience is much less cynical."
At CMT's urging, the pageant was moved to the Aladdin Resort and Casino in Las Vegas to give it a jolt of energy, but in a spot that is anything but countrified. Still, much about the broadcast will stay the same. Mr. Villadolid has ensured that the swimsuit competition will be a prominent segment. And someone recognizable will probably sing "There she is ...," though CMT has yet to identify that person.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Denton, 42, who was raised outside Nashville and is now best known as the hunky plumber on Wisteria Lane, said he had been given assurances that he would not be tapped to succeed Mr. Aiken.
"I could get through it," said Mr. Denton, who has a background in musical theater, "but there's just no point in putting myself out there like that."