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A lift for the only thing sagging -- its ratings

Miss America contest hopes a reveal-a-little reality show can lure viewers. Here she is, duck hunting and all.

January 21, 2007|Samantha Bonar | Times Staff Writer

EVERY year, it seems, there's a new plan to reverse the long downhill slide of the Miss America pageant and return it to the must-watch status it enjoyed half a century ago, when 27 million viewers -- almost 40% of the television audience -- tuned in for three hours of bathing suits, ball gowns and baton twirling.

In recent years, the length of the broadcast has been cut by a third. The easily ridiculed talent competition was largely eliminated, confined to the three finalists. Bathing suits got more modest, then less modest and paired with bare feet. In 2001, the pageant producers came up with a "Survivor"-type idea, where eliminated contestants voted to decide who would remain on the beauty island.

And when that landed ABC the pageant's smallest audience ever -- 9.8 million viewers -- the show moved to Country Music Television, which set the show in Las Vegas instead of Atlantic City, N.J., and pulled in an audience of just 3.1 million for the live show.

But when the pageant premiere ranked as the most-watched telecast in CMT's history, the network set about building Miss America's "event" status. The big idea for 2007: back story. Thus, "Pageant School: Becoming Miss America," a two-hour reality show meant to bring the contestants to life as they master the intricacies of the competitive charm and beauty circuit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Miss America: A story in Sunday's Calendar about Miss America indicated that ABC drew 9.8 million viewers for its broadcast in 2001. That figure was for its last broadcast of the event, in 2004.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Miss America: An article last Sunday about the Miss America Pageant indicated that ABC drew 9.8 million viewers for its broadcast in 2001. That figure was for its last broadcast of the event, in 2004.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Miss America: An article in the Jan. 21 Calendar section about Miss America indicated that ABC drew 9.8 million viewers for its broadcast in 2001. That figure was for its last broadcast of the event, in 2004.

"Pageant School" airs Friday at 9 p.m. and repeats frequently over the weekend -- running also on sister networks MTV and VH1 -- leading up to the Jan. 29 pageant, and the hope is that viewers will find contestants to identify with, champion and disdain -- then tune in to find out who wins the real competition.

There's nakedly ambitious Miss Delaware, Jamie Ginn, 24, the oldest contestant and one of the few brunettes, who points out that she gave up a "huge" salary as a chemical engineer to compete; Miss South Dakota, Callee Bauman, who exhibits a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor; plus dozens more characters to reveal hopes, fear of wearing short-shorts and lust for the crown.

"Unlike a lot of reality shows, we were dealing with a huge cast," said Paul Villadolid, CMT's vice president of programming and development, who helped create "Pageant School" and oversaw all production.

"We have 52 contestants. We wanted to come up with a way where each could have their moment in the sun. We also wanted to give them some real, constructive advice."

An interactive website (www.missamerica.cmt.com) lets viewers learn more about the contestants -- Miss Kansas' favorite book is Ecclesiastes; Miss Arizona's favorite food is Skittles -- and participate in a $1-million choose-the-winner sweepstakes.

Pageant queen next door

WITH the new emphasis on showing the contestants as real people -- flaws, preferences, imperfect histories and all -- "I do think you lose a little of the mystique," admitted Sam Haskell, chairman of the Miss America Organization. But that's less important, he says, than giving viewers something to relate to. And a reality approach, he said, is not that much of a reach, for in the old days "you could take a Mississippi belle or a Kansas farm girl and make her a star overnight."

If less mystery, more history means knowing Miss Massachusetts wears an internal cardiac defibrillator or Miss Arkansas enjoys duck hunting, so be it.

Filmed over five days at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel last September, "Pageant School" is close kin to "America's Next Top Model." In lieu of Tyra Banks is earnest, husky-voiced pageant school coach Erika Schwartz Wright, the 1997 Miss America runner-up, who heads a panel of three experts: Phyllis George, Miss America 1971; Angela Baraquio Grey, Miss America 2001; and Dale Smith Thomas, another pageant coach. Current Miss America Jennifer Berry (nee Miss Oklahoma) is also on hand to offer advice and information.

The goal, we learn, is to level the playing field by giving contestants feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. Some have been competing in the pageant system since they were children, others for a matter of mere months.

During "school," everyone gets makeup lessons ("no '80s makeup"), movement tips in the form of a line-dancing competition, a catwalk in sweats rather than evening wear (to make the point that it's about the person, not the clothes) and participates in a "swimsuits through the decades" competition.

Through it all, pageant school coach Wright offers such bits of wisdom as: "The minute you doubt, you have let someone else beat you," "Do your best, show your personality and have a good time" and "You cannot fake confidence."

On the last day, participants have a chance to meet and question three of the people who will judge the actual pageant: actress and Miss Florida 1974 Delta Burke, singer Michael Feinstein and actress, dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen (who, unfortunately, never once utters: "Fame costs! Are you ready to pay the price?").

Finally, the most improved contestant is crowned pageant school queen. The prize: a $23,000 diamond necklace.

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