September 21, 2001
There are really TWO Miss America Organizations

Staff Writer

In 1993, the Miss America Pageant became the Miss America Organization. Nowadays, they don't even like to use the word 'pageant'.

But, in reality, the pageant (sorry, it just slipped out) is TWO organizations.

One features the thousands and thousands of volunteers from coast to coast - including the dedicated women from Atlantic and Cape May counties who comprise the incomparable Miss America Hostess Committee - all devoted to the scholarship program and the opportunities it gives America's young women.
Then there is that other organization, the executives in Atlantic City who are just fixated on the three hours of television the program gets every fall. Sometimes it seems like this organization is not working in collaboration with those many volunteers.

Now, we all understand the importance of the television broadcast. It is not an ego thing. When the TV ratings go down, it is harder to sell sponsorships and you can't charge as much for them. That's the way television works.

And, make no mistake about it, the ratings are down. Not just for Miss America, but for Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA.

Here are some facts.

According to Nielsen Media Research, in 1998 the Miss USA Pageant (they don't mind the word) drew more viewers than Miss America for the first time since 1983. Miss America has beaten Miss USA in 18 of the last 21 years. Miss Universe has beaten them both four times in 21 years, but has not beaten Miss America since 1984. In fact, Teen USA has beaten Universe six times since then.

But here is the impressive ratings statistic. In 1983, the first year Teen USA was televised nationally, there were almost 122 million combined viewers of the four pageants. In 2000, there were just over 40 million.

The four pageants had lost more than 67 percent of their audience. Miss America lost 59 percent, Miss USA (which beat Miss America by almost 3 million in 1983) has lost 65 percent, Miss Universe has lost 75 percent and Teen USA has lost 69 percent. By those numbers, Miss America has actually held up a little better. Of course, these are ratings for the United States and Miss Universe has a sizable international audience that the others do not.

In what could be a bad omen, it should also be pointed out that both Miss USA and Miss Universe had their worst ratings in history during 2001.

The bottom line is, there is a ton of competition on television these days. HBO has about 15 channels and so does Showtime. The weekend is filled with sports and there are channels for women, kids, cartoon lovers, cooks - you name it. Those of us on Comcast just got another hundred channels, or something like that.

In their effort to improve these ratings, Miss America has tried everything. A 900 number during the show to allow viewers to vote on whether to keep the swimsuit competition. An "average American" added to the panel of judges. A panel of Saturday night celebrity judges, who barely got to know the women in one night. Two-piece swimsuits. Cutting the talent competition in half on Saturday.

This year they are letting the 41 women who don't make the Top 10 have a say in the judging. They are going to start Saturday night with 20 contestants, rather than 10. There will be four preliminary winners announced each night, instead of the traditional two. And, they are turning the finale into "Who Wants to be a Miss America", with a multiple-choice current events and trivia quiz.

None of the previous gimmicks helped ratings and it is unlikely that these will, either. If they really want to increase ratings, here are a half-dozen suggestions - Vanessa Williams, New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Lopez, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Destiny's Child.

There are more, but you get the idea. It is very, very difficult, with all the other options, to get the viewing public to tune in to a show that features 51 people most of them have never heard of. You need a big name or two to draw the audience.

Cutting the Saturday talent performances to five was an especially puzzling decision, one that you suspect came from a television person rather than a pageant person. There is one major difference between Miss America and its competitors - talent (or, as they call it now, "Artistic Expression"). So, what do they do? They reduce the exposure of that difference to the viewing public by half. Very strange.

This brings us to the conflicts between the "two" organizations. Almost every year, the rules are changed for the national competition after the contestants have already been chosen at the state level. Could you imagine what the reaction would be if NBC came to the NBA and said, "Our surveys indicate the public is tired of watched Shaq miss free throws. So, we want to eliminate foul shooting from playoff games".

Sure. They'd laugh NBC out of the office. But Miss America continues to change anything it can think of to improve ratings, even the rules. Even if it means the women competing in Atlantic City might not have won at the state level under those new rules.

Make no mistake about it, this pageant (darn, slipped again!) offers great opportunities for young women. It is not for everybody, but those who are interested and capable can walk away with some of the millions of scholarship dollars awarded each year.

An argument could be made, by the way, that Miss America no longer offers more scholarships for women than any other program in the country. The NCAA schools have expanded sports scholarships for women to a number that probably surpasses annually what is awarded by Miss America. But, who cares if they are first or second, pageant opportunities still improve hundreds of lives every year.

The growth of sports for girls and women has had a negative impact on pageants in other ways. Girls that dreamed of wearing a crown now dream of kicking the winning goal, playing in the WNBA or winning Wimbledon. The Miss Atlantic County Pageant, to use a local example, had 24 contestants just 10 years ago. Up until 1980 it had easily been the state's biggest local, actually holding a three-night competition. This year eight young women competed for the county title. There are just less girls interested in pageants, largely because of the competition from sports.

More and more fans are interested in women's sports, too. Earlier this month, the US Open tennis final between Venus and Serena Williams drew almost three times as many viewers as last year's Miss America show.

Instead of changing rules weeks before the national competition and trying obvious publicity stunts every fall in an obsessed effort to improve the ratings for those three hours, why not expand what is given to the sponsors? Why not televise the preliminary nights on a cable network? Why not make the parade a cable, network or Internet production? How about televising state pageants on cable or the Internet? Give the sponsors more exposure to viewers through more programming.

In addition, try a few of those big names to draw more network viewers and let all 10 of the semi-finalists perform their talents again. Be proud of the talent requirements, don't try to hide them. Miss America purports to be the original and the best, yet it recently has been grabbing at every trend like a desperate show trying to avoid cancellation.

To many in this area, Miss America is a proud tradition. It is, in effect, Atlantic City's biggest convention. Around the country, especially in many Southern states, it is still a very important event.

It is not, and never will be again, however, a gigantic, ratings-grabbing, network television spectacular. Miss America needs a significant new direction, one that is fair to the volunteers, consistent with its past and one that expands the exposure of the program beyond those three hours on a Saturday night every fall.