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Miss America past her prime time?

With smaller audiences, TV execs hope hype will keep tradition alive.

September 18, 2004|Geoff Mulvihill | Associated Press

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

The tube was the 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 chief executive officer. "I don't think it can survive without television."

As the pageant celebrates its golden anniversary on the small screen at 9 tonight 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 as host of "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 two.

Acting Miss America CEO Art McMaster disputes the notion that ABC has forced the competition to change, but says the TV show is the essence of Miss America. "It shows America what we're all about," he said.

In the 1950s and early '60s -- before cable, satellite dishes and DVDs -- the televised pageant was the Super Bowl of its day.

About 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 the competition won by Miss Florida, Ericka Dunlap.

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