In an effort to halt a lengthy slide in viewer and advertiser interest, the Miss America Pageant turns to Tinseltown for a much-needed makeover." data-categories = "" data-popup = "" data-ads = "Yes" data-company = "[]" data-outstream = "yes" >

THERE SHE IS AGAIN By BETSY SHARKE

In an effort to halt a lengthy slide in viewer and advertiser interest, the Miss America Pageant turns to Tinseltown for a much-needed makeover.

The Miss America Pageant, the epitome of heartland institutions, is going Hollywood this Saturday. Exactly what this means for the nation’s most famous beauty contest is hard to say, but organizers of the event are hoping there will be enough show-biz style to reverse lagging viewer and advertiser interest and restore the 72-year-old affair to its former glory.
This year’s pageant will still take place in Atlantic City and air on NBC, but it will bear the mark of one of Hollywood’s most respected big-event producers and one of its most successful image-making firms. Each was hired for the purpose of bringing the Miss America contest into the ’90s.
Leonard Horn, who became president/ceo of the Miss America Organization several years ago, says changes in the show had been under consideration for some time. Viewership, which reached nearly 60 million households in the 1970s, had slipped to 15 million by the ’90s. Even worse, the pageant seemed in danger of losing its long-running slot on network television.
‘It had become painfully obvious to me that the world had changed, from television itself to the socio-economic fabric of our society,’ says Horn, ‘but Miss America had not changed in many decades. If the program was going to survive, we had to change the perception that this was just a beauty pageant.’
The organizers invited Academy Awards producer Jeff Margolis to attend last year’s show. His assessment: The contestants looked more like ’40-year-old Stepford wives’ than All-American beauties; the production numbers needed an update; and the evening gowns seemed like something from the Barbie fashion book.
Horn asked Margolis to give Miss America a makeover, and he agreed. Horn then brought in marketing and public relations firm Clein + White, a Hollywood institution more accustomed to fine-tuning the image of movies and their stars, to assist Margolis. An 86-page report on ways to update the pageant followed.
Horn’s primary goal is to convince television audiences the Miss America Pageant is still a ‘must see’ show. To do that, he wants the program to look less Main Street and more Hollywood Boulevard. It has been a slow and painful process, he says, and has required changing attitudes on the outside and fighting traditions within. ‘We had to find a way to make appropriate changes to attract younger viewers,’ says Horn, ‘and at the same time retain the loyalty of those who grew up with it and like it the way it was.’
For instance, word went out to contestants that there would be ‘no Pageant Hair’ this year. Hair must now ‘fit within a normal doorframe.’ And instead of just showing girl after evening-gowned girl walk down the runway, NBC will air an MTV-style autibiographical video from each contestant. Even the Miss America theme gets an update with a hiphop flavor (did somebody say MC Bert Parks?).
The most important change, say those who sponsor the pageant, is the social-issue segment. Today, Miss America must be more than a pretty face, and each contestant must show a commitment to a particular social issue. This year the show will feature its first Woman of Achievement award. The recipient is Mary D. Fisher, who went public with her HIV-positive status during a speech to the Republican National Convention. Through a grant from another pageant sponsor, Fruit of the Loom, $50,000 will be donated to an AIDS charity in her name.
Building in a social-responsibility criteria ‘makes Miss America very relevant,’ says Lew Eads, assistant manager of passenger car advertising for Chevrolet, a corporate sponsor of the pageant for six years.
Still, some consumers remain uncomfortable with the program. ‘It may be a part of Americana, and it may have the interviews, the talent competition and all the rest,’ says one agency’s senior strategic planner. ‘But it is still fundamentally an exercise in assessing female worth based on physical attractiveness.’
Miss America will always be a beauty contest, Horn concedes. He just wants the new format to show another side of the contestants and the non-profit organization itself, which provides more than $10 million in scholarships and grants to women each year.
Whether audiences will view the Hollywood-influenced changes in the program as more than cosmetic surgery will be some years in the answering, but overnight ratings should give current and potential advertisers some indication.
At least one New York agency chief is somewhat optimistic. ‘If Hillary Clinton can rewrite what it means to be First Lady,’ he says, ‘then there’s certainly hope for Miss America.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)