Miss America eyes hip Las Vegas

By Kathleen Hennessey - 01/14/2006

LAS VEGAS — They’ll tap dance, sing and glide around the stage. They’ll don glitzy costumes, bathing suits and bright smiles in a quest for big money and a chance to see their names in lights.

Just don’t call them showgirls.

On Saturday, 52 driven, young beauties arrive in Las Vegas to begin the weeklong whirlwind Miss America pageant. The televised finale airs Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. It will be the first time in the annual pageant’s 85-year history that the winner will be crowned outside Atlantic City, N.J., a move designed to use Sin City sexiness to stop the show’s slipping TV ratings and declining popularity.

It’s also the first time the show will air on MTV Network’s Country Music Television, a cable channel with red-state roots and a Kenny Chesney-loving following. And, instead of the usual talk-show type host, the pageant this year will be fronted by flat-out TV hunk James Denton of "Desperate Housewives."

The many changes raise one big question, a sad one for longtime viewers to even contemplate: What happens if the pageant’s latest incarnation doesn’t revive the venerated, but creaky, mom-and-apple pie institution? Is ‘‘Miss America’s’’ survival on the line?

‘‘I don’t even want to go there,’’ said Art McMaster, chief executive officer of the Atlantic City-based Miss America Organization, a not-for-profit group that, along with affiliates, makes $45 million in scholarships available to women each year, including $50,000 to the winner.

McMaster notes the organization has entered into a multiyear contract with CMT. He said he hopes the move to a cable network draws new viewers and sets up new, lower expectations for the show’s television ratings.

‘‘Will we ever get 20 million viewers again? You know and I know that’s never going to happen,’’ he said. ‘‘But as long as get we the long-time pageant fans watching, we’ll be around another 85 years.’’

So it is, the pageant’s organizers hope it’s a case of back to the future for ‘‘Miss America’’ — a mix of the old with a strong dollop of the Las Vegas-supplied new.

In an attempt to cater to its die-hard followers, producers say they plan to restore the show to its earlier glory by ditching a quiz show and a casual-wear competition, elements recently borrowed from reality television and game shows to try to give the pageant a more updated feel. A record low 9.8 million viewers watched the show on ABC in 2004, a 20 percent drop since 2000 and about half the viewership that watched in 1984.

‘‘Basic values and tradition, that is what we brought the show back to,’’ said McMaster.

But he also acknowledges traditional values and scholarship contests don’t always make for great television. That’s where Las Vegas comes in.

‘‘We’re so proud of what we do all year long. However, once the show is on, it can’t be just all about highlighting traditional values. We’ve got to show we can put on a very entertaining show,’’ he said. ‘‘Quite honestly, no other city has the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is what our show is all about.’’

Pageant watchers are quick to point out the irony.

While conceived in 1921 as a way to keep tourists on Atlantic City’s boardwalk after Labor Day, the Miss America pageant quickly and intentionally evolved into a symbol of modesty and feminine pluck. The first Miss America, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman from Washington, D.C., was hailed in The New York Times as ‘‘the type of womanhood America needs, strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests.’’

Organizers see Miss America and Las Vegas as a marriage made in media heaven. The move west let the contestants start 11-days of buildup with publicity events in Los Angeles, smiling for television critics at a conference and appearing on ‘‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.’’ The old-fashioned parade in convertibles down the boardwalk has been replaced in Las Vegas with a Hollywood-style red carpet ceremony outside the Aladdin hotel-casino, the show’s host.

Source: The Montana Standard - Butte, Montana USA (www.mtstandard.com/)