Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 | 1:36 p.m.
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When the live Las Vegas broadcast of the 2012 Miss America Pageant crowning two weeks ago came in with its best TV ratings in eight years, pageant officials were ecstatic: “It’s nothing short of a miracle,” Miss America Organization Chairman Sam Haskell told me.
But despite ABC’s big numbers and demographics, there was instant criticism from several pageant fans concerning “the squirm factor” -- the moment one of three ousted contestants would be “saved” by a very visible onstage show of support by the contestants not chosen by the celebrity judges.
As cameras rolled, the hopefuls were given seconds to line up in public view behind the girl they most wanted to get a second chance and continue onward. It was a moment of high emotional drama that moved forward Miss Alabama Courtney Porter. (This year’s winner was Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler.)
I thought it was great, wholesome television and definitely Monday morning water-cooler conversation, as the producers obviously wanted. It was unique, a first for a beauty pageant, but I also guessed it would cause controversy. Sure enough, even before the show ended, emails and tweets began flooding in that it was a cruel ratings ploy.
“If I could bring Bert Parks back from the dead, somebody would complain,” Sam told me. “We get complaints that the swimsuits are too small, the heels are too high and the music is too modern and not like the old waltzes.
“Some longtime viewers forget that these young, talented ladies have been brought up on reality television. They are accustomed to ‘saves.’ They know how the eliminations go on ‘American Idol’ or ‘Dancing With the Stars.” The going-home factor is acceptable on competition shows, and it was a surprise element that both Miss America and ABC wanted in the show.
“We did the ‘last chance’ a year ago, and the girls liked it -- but then it was a behind-the-scenes, unknown vote. We thought it would be great to do it out in the open voting publicly with the contestants themselves so the audience can see who they wanted to save. That was a real first in the middle of a show. It really worked as a conversation starter, but it also upset some of our faithful pageant followers.
“It was not mean. It was not cruel. It was ingenious and just good drama -- and that’s a good thing. It might have been uncomfortable for some as a squirm factor, but it definitely wasn’t mean. People must understand I’m not that kind of a man and wouldn’t have approved something mean. As much as we want to hold onto tradition, we have to make the program relevant in this day and age.
“The three biggest live events of the television year used to be the Super Bowl, the Oscars and Miss America. I’d like to see Miss America back there in the Top Three again. We’re getting there and doing something right because we ended up the second-highest-rated live show in the time period after ABC’s New Year’s Eve programming. The network is over the moon with the ratings, and we really attracted that key advertiser audience of 18-49 year olds.”
Over the years, Miss America has slipped drastically in the ratings and was bounced from ABC -- and to give it new life moved from Atlantic City to Las Vegas seven years ago. In fact, the institution was literally on its last legs as a viable scholarship institution. It’s goody two shoes image was worn and fading as viewers settled for beauty -- artificial or not -- over brains. The special wound up on lower-rated, less-visible cable networks, but Miss America won a new lease as it settled into Las Vegas and this year catapulted into ABC’s top ratings.
Sam revealed that the production team, including producer Anthony Eaton of Tall Pony and new Emmy director Joe DeMaio, and he have already started talking about next year’s program from Las Vegas. “We can’t do this one again, but we’re always going to do something new and unexpected,” he said. “Our celebrity judges also got caught up in love for the pageant and have contributed some ideas we have welcomed.
“The truth is that nobody will ever be 100 percent happy with what changes we make to stay relevant. Let’s face it: Reality television is here to stay, and Miss America is a basic competition show in various categories to start with … I don’t know why some people were so shocked.
“You look back to Miss America in 2001, and the final question was more of a gameshow element. Then along came ‘Survivor,’ and that changed the way people watched television. Those who do criticize us forget that we already have girls competing with each other in the talent category.
“We will always choose something different but always remain faithful to the tradition of Miss America competition. The changes will keep coming, and whether people like it more or like it less, we will continue to keep it compelling television.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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