If you're an American over 40 whose mental frequency can still tune in to Bert Parks crooning, "There she is ... Miss America!," you might have been dismayed to learn that the organizers this year turned the once-august pageant into a reality TV show, complete with makeover consultants, videotaped "confessionals" and an Italianate mansion as posh backdrop.
At one time, news of this sort might have sparked street riots and food rationing. Before, say, the 1980s, the Miss America pageant was a big deal, a bedrock of heartland patriotism, socioeconomic aspiration and gender-role mythology. But its cultural star has dimmed, and officials are struggling to reinvent the pageant.
Viewers can judge the results for themselves Saturday night, when TLC airs "Miss America Live," which included as buildup four one-hour episodes of "Miss America: Reality Check," an unscripted series that borrowed liberally from shows like "What Not to Wear," "America's Next Top Model" and "The Bachelor," while still trying to keep the contestants' fabled purity intact (read: no VH1-style hookups allowed!).
TLC's version of the pageant itself will sorely test Miss America traditionalists, provided they still exist. The 36 contestants who don't make it as finalists, for example, will not be ushered away but instead will watch from the "American Idol"-like stage &
with the semifinalists' parents, no less &
as their former rivals jockey for the crown. (Warning: Priceless reaction shots ahead.) And one of the 16 semifinalists will be chosen by viewers of the reality show.
Heresy? Maybe, but Sam Haskell said something had to be done to rescue the Las Vegas pageant from irrelevance.
"People used to know who Miss America was," Haskell, a former top William Morris TV agent and chairman of the Miss America Organization, said in a recent interview. "There are going to be a lot of people who'll think we're denigrating the pageant. I don't think we are. I think we're making it more relatable. And I pray that I'm right."
In many ways, Haskell's bet sounds logical. After all, televised pageants are reality shows. Like "Top Model," Miss America always has had a competitive structure, a merciless winnowing process and a panel of judges. The connection is so obvious that the rival Miss USA pageant, owned by Donald Trump, is famous for the dozens of contestants who've graduated to that weird brand of fame reality TV affords, on "The Amazing Race," "Fear Factor," "The Bachelor" and many other shows.
But Miss America? Can a young scholarship recipient who supposedly sums up all that's ennobling about America somehow emerge from a reality show without tarnishing her crown? As Haskell tells it, even devotees were skeptical.
"A lot of the states were very nervous about it, (saying), 'What are you going to be doing, eating bugs?' " he said of the local organizers who send contestants to the national pageant. But producers were charged with keeping the series respectable: "They wouldn't put the girls in a position where they would have to do anything that wasn't classy."
And some say that's exactly the problem. With the push into reality TV, Miss America is maybe entering an arena where she can't win. Recapping "Reality Check" earlier this month, a writer for TVGasm.com wrote: "I've decided that TLC makes the most boring reality shows ever. Take some pointers from VH1, then call me."
As Tom Weeks, vice president and entertainment director at Chicago ad company Starcom USA, more kindly put it: "You don't watch reality programming for safe content. You watch for 'Celebrity Rehab' and other train wrecks."
Weeks said that the explosion of media in recent years has diluted the cultural importance of the Miss America competition. "I don't think reality programming is the answer," he said, adding that officials should "refocus and get back to the basics."
Early ratings would seem to validate that view. The first episode of "Reality Check" this month logged a respectable 1.4 million viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. But subsequent airings were not as impressive, and the show hung on to only about two-thirds of the viewers from its lead-in, "What Not to Wear."
But it would be a mistake to write off Haskell, who knows pageants almost as well as he does TV. The native of Amory, Miss., ran the local pageant at Ole Miss and married his college sweetheart, Mary Donnelly, who was crowned Miss Mississippi in 1977.
The couple moved to Los Angeles, where Haskell began a 27-year career at William Morris, eventually overseeing the TV department and representing Bill Cosby, Ray Romano and other A-list clients. But he kept a close friendship with Al Marks, then Miss America's top official, and even served as a pageant judge during the 1980s.
Shortly after he exited the agency in early 2005, Haskell said, he began hearing from board members who were concerned that the pageant was losing its way. Television ratings had declined. Gloria Steinem and other feminist critics had made a cottage industry out of attacking the pageant as demeaning to women. And NBC had signed a long-term deal to telecast Miss USA. ABC had decided to dump the Miss America telecast, and the other broadcasters were not interested in picking the show up.
"What I think what they were really unhappy about was the regime in charge was completely resistant to any kind of change," said Haskell, now 52. Officials clung to "this whole idea of presenting Miss America as this perfect Barbie doll, America's princess."
Haskell joined the board and later became chairman. He works for no salary and insisted the nonprofit organization get lean, slicing the staff from 25 to 12. More important, he helped negotiate the deals that would protect Miss America's TV platform: First on CMT, Viacom's country-music network, and then, starting this year, on Discovery Networks' TLC.
"The television show is the Miss America pageant," Haskell said in his Southern drawl. "It's the only reason people know it's still around."
But he and other officials also realized that they had to find a way to reconnect with younger viewers. "One of the reasons Miss America started to fall is because we lost the younger kids," Haskell said. "They obviously are watching the other pageants. But I don't know why they didn't watch Miss America. Maybe they thought it was their parents' pageant."
During the makeover segments, consultants encouraged the women to rethink the traditional pageant reliance on heavy makeup and gigantic hairstyles.
"The girls really had to get away from that," said Rachael Scholten, a former Miss Ohio contestant who works with Weeks at Starcom.
That kind of reaction is what gives Haskell hope that his experiment will succeed. He reasons that the organization has a chance "to rebrand Miss America, to create an alternative to Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
"Little girls today want to know what kind of shoes they're wearing, what kind of bag they're carrying, what kind of dress they're wearing, what kind of car they're driving," he said. "Why can't that be Miss America, someone with a positive image?"
E-mail Collins at scott.collins(at)latimes.com.
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