Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, June 20, 2005

television

-- television -- there she ... ain't

Article reprinted in its entirety due to brevity.

L.A. Daily News - Pageant left behind by reality TV

Miss America doesn't have a date, and the uncertainty has her world in a tizzy.

With three months to go before its traditional start, the beauty pageant is still without a TV contract and has yet to establish a date for the crowning, which traditionally is held in early September. Dropped by ABC last fall because of record-low viewership, the Miss America pageant has been searching for a new television outlet to carry the 84-year-old pageant. Art McMaster, CEO of the Miss America Organization, has declined repeated requests for an interview about the pageant's hunt for a new TV outlet. Spokeswoman Jenni Glenn said Friday the pageant is in "final negotiations with interested networks" and will have an announcement within two weeks.

Pageant officials have said they are considering a shift away from the tired formula of the telecast -- which drew only 9.8 million viewers last year -- in favor of something more in line with reality TV shows. Instead of a once-a-year special that struggles to interest viewers, McMaster has pitched the idea of Miss America as a show aired over several nights, with viewers getting to know the contestants as they do on "American Idol" and other reality shows. "I don't think there's an audience for squeaky clean," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for ad-buying firm Carat. "It has to be modernized in the way we've all been fed such reality. You need to see the tears, the drama, the makeup, the mascara, the crisis of finding out you have a zit."

You know, I think that may be wrongheaded. If nothing else, "Dancing with the stars" (which, as it turns out, draws higher ratings as a summer series than the last edition of the Miss America pageant did as a leadoff for the fall season) indicates that there is still a place for "squeaky clean" of a certain type. "American Idol" also indicates that there's a place for "squeaky clean" of a certain type -- although AI is only squeaky clean as long as you don't look at the various rap sheets and awkward aspects of some of its contestants' personal lives. It may be, however, that the "squeaky clean" we still have a place for isn't the Miss America Pageant.

It may be that the "squeaky clean" we still have a place for has to be a bit ... cheesy. Almost, but not quite, self-consciously over the top, a bit self-mocking, something that doesn't take itself too terribly seriously (regardless of whether or not the contestants do). Miss America has, for years, taken itself deadly seriously. It's had to, in order to defend its place as a scholarship contest with a vaguely (but not sufficiently) cheesy beauty pageant attached. And it may be that beauty pageants have simply had their day on broadcast television; the Miss Universe Pageant, which never once had the slightest qualm about being all about the cheese(cake, that is), suffered a steep ratings slide this year. If beautiful women in bikinis and evening gowns isn't going to draw the "discriminating male viewer", when the pageant's sole purpose is to present those women to be ogled (and for said women to win fabulous cash and prizes as compensation for the ogling, of course), then what hope is there for the televised pageant?

That said, if Miss America really plans to try to present themselves as some sort of reality TV series, they're going to have to bring back the talent competition. In all seriousness, and with some apologies to the contestants, the talent competition was one of the things that kept people watching. Yes, in a 2-3 hour telecast, it was very hard to accommodate, and much of the talent was repetitive. Since the performance order was random, it was entirely possible to have Miss Kansas doing an opera aria, followed by Miss Kentucky doing an opera aria, followed by Miss California doing something from a musical that still sounded like it wanted to be an opera aria when it grew up, and at that point the audience is changing channels to keep their ears from bleeding from all the high notes. Nonetheless, the talent competition was the one place in the pageant where you could have some good, oldfashioned, authentic, wholesome cheese, of the "I can't believe she's doing that on stage!" variety. After all, where else were you going to see at least one baton twirler per year on television in this day and age? Possibly a flaming baton, if we were very luck (although fire codes and the possibility of spectator lawsuits made the Miss America Foundation and the network rather tetchy about flaming anything on stage).

Even so, talent section or no, it's doubtful that the pageant could survive quite so thorough a rearrangement of its "squeaky clean" image as a reality-show series would provide. Part of the reason that people liked it at all was the image of all-American, wholesome young women that it presented; people may not want to see Miss America in her natural state, pageant cattiness, zits and all. That type of presentation would likely just kill the pageant dead in its tracks ... and if it didn't, after one or two seasons, the scholarship foundation might well wish it had. Imagine the difficulty they might have if you actually got to see Miss Congeniality being ... well, much more congenial than the eventual winner. It's one thing to have one of the losing women voted Miss Congeniality by the other participants; it's another thing to have the audience see exactly how and why she got that honor ... and still lost.

Reportedly, the pageant is looking to American Movie Channel's subsidiary Women's Entertainment -- WE -- cable channel for carriage. Cable may be the proper place for something as oddly anachronistic as the Miss America Pageant -- something that's pretty much guaranteed to have a relatively small, aging, but dedicated core audience. The question is, would the pageant as it is currently constructed actually have all that much appeal for WE's audience? Was the Miss America Pageant's audience ever primarily to or for women? (The scholarship competition, yes, by design, but the pageant itself?) Can WE somehow do advertising that will convince a few men to give it a watch? And, most importantly, can the WE channel pay a price for the pageant that will allow Miss America to continue to fund local, state, and national scholarships at their current levels or higher, as educational costs incrase?

It will be interesting to see what the scholarship competition does if, as seems likely, they don't find a sponsor for this year. Strange as it may seem to some, most of the Miss America contestants are deadly serious about their career advancement and their further education. Miss America has funded a rather astonishing number of scholarships for lawyers and doctors and other graduate and undergraduate education opportunities. It would be sad if that opportunity was lost. But then, perhaps it's inevitable; there is no logical connection between the swimsuit competition or the eveningwear competion and an academic scholarship, is there? (I hear some of you saying that there's also no logical connection between football or basketball and academic scholarships. Hush up; it's not nice to point out that the emperor's got no pants on. Then again, all the logical connection that's needed is that [1] networks are willing to pay to carry those sports and, [2] people are still watching them in relatively large numbers. Unfortunately, that's no longer true for Miss America. That said, you could argue that there is a logical and traditional connection between the interviews and/or the talent competition and the scholarships; there are many of those sorts of scholarship competitions around. But those sections alone wouldn't necessarily make for compelling television, would they? Or not as easily compelling as babes in bikinis. But I digress.) The best you could say is that the competition teaches women that they're going to be judged on their beauty, no matter how interesting their personality or how strong their intellect. People continually think of Miss America as nothing but a beauty pageant, so perhaps it might, eventually, be best for the pageant to be decoupled from the scholarships, if the scholarships can find some other way to survive.

Posted by iain at 03:41 PM in category television