Tom Williams AT LARGE:
Miss America is back on NBC-TV. That is a good thing.
The pageant will be held at the Mohegan Sun Casino-Hotel in Connecticut six days before Christmas. That is not such a good thing.
As most of you know, The Miss America Pageant started in Atlantic City as a swim suit contest in September designed to attract visitors and extend the summer season. With the exception of a few years in Las Vegas, most of its 97 competitions have been in Atlantic City.
There was a time when the pageant TV audience competed with other live specials like the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards for the top ratings of the year.
Viewers have totaled less than 10 million every year since 2004. Last year the audience was estimated at between four and five million. Almost 35 million watched in 1985, its largest audience.
That proves that the pageant does not hold the important position among the public that it did in its prime. So what. With millions of viewers it can still be a positive experience that impacts the lives of the young women who compete. It needs to be run for that reason, not as a vehicle for those in charge to earn high salaries and further their careers.
Miss America was established by volunteers and, except for some office staff and a few professionals to produce the show, was run by volunteers for most of its existence. But Former director Sam Haskell’s firm was contracted to receive $500,000 per year and ex-pageant president Art McMaster earned between $200,000 and $250,000 a year during his 10 years.
It seems like control of the pageant has reverted to individuals who have little concern about the history of the event and who spent very little time, before making major decisions, talking with its greatest source of information – the state and local directors around the country who have dedicated years of their lives as volunteers.
There needs to be more people on the pageant’s Board of Directors like Barbara Moore, who has local ties, a knowledge of pageant history and who has actually produced a couple of preliminary pageants herself.
Since the current Miss America leadership seems determined to go where the dollar takes them, its a shame that people from the Atlantic City area can’t do what they did in 1921 – start from scratch with a new pageant, drawing on the experience and dedication of the volunteers from around the country and owned by local residents. Dave Talarico, grandson of William Schoppy – an important supporter of the pageant when it began – suggests the Green Bay Packers solution.
Green Bay Packers Inc., has been a publicly owned, nonprofit corporation since 1923. One of the more remarkable business stories in American history, the Green Bay Packers organization has been kept viable by its shareholders — its unselfish fans. Even more incredible, the Packers have survived and thrived during the current era, permeated by free agency and the NFL salary cap.
Fans have supported the team financially through five stock sales: 1923, 1935, 1950, 1997 and 2011. Today, 361,169 people (representing 5,009,562 shares) are owners of the iconic franchise.
There is no concern that the Packers could be leaving Green Bay, the smallest city in America with a professional sports franchise, in search of a presidential suite in Connecticut.
With the proper management, Miss America has a better chance of surviving in Atlantic City than elsewhere. Could the Sundance Film Festival be as popular in St. Louis? Should they think about taking the Mardi Gras to Pittsburgh? How about Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in Oklahoma City? These events are connected to their locations and Miss America has that connection with Atlantic City.
Almost everyone reading this has some Miss America connection. A daughter, niece or sister might have competed in a local pageant. Maybe a wife or neighbor has volunteered as a hostess during the week. Or possibly you just attend the pageant or the Boardwalk parade regularly.
There are a few things that could be done to improve TV ratings. For example, virtually nobody knows the women competing for the title.
Why not offer the three preliminary competition nights on a network or via a live stream? Hometown stations of the women competing could also air them. It would give potential final night viewers a chance to get to know these women and possibly find a few they like. That would increase the chances of them tuning in for the finals.
The pageant tried to accomplish this on cable in Las Vegas with a series of programs designed like reality shows. But they were awful. Do what you do best – produce the preliminaries for television.
Then there are the scholarships.
The Miss America Pageant is the only major pageant competition that awards college scholarships. They continue to claim they are the largest scholarship program for women in the country. In reality, the NCAA surpassed the pageant in annual scholarships by a large margin more than a decade ago. But, so what. Being second is no disgrace.
Thousands of women, including many who have remained in the public eye, have benefited greatly from their participation in the program. It is not for everybody but, if pageant competition appeals to you, this program at its best can virtually change your life.
A lot of people in this area still resent the way the pageant left Atlantic City and the hole it has left in their year. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers – like Ocean City’s Jean Serber and Upper Township’s Sandi Rinck – made the pageant what it was. It will never be that again. Many mistakes have been made along the way. But the Miss America Pageant still can play a positive role in our society.
On December 19 (ironically the same day that Miss Universe will televise its finals from South Korea) a new Miss America will be crowned. The two shows will probably not be on live TV at the same time because of the 13-hour time difference. But it is a weird coincidence.
The Miss America Pageant is not what it once was and it will never be that again. But if there is no way to turn it over to people who understand what it means and why it should be in Atlantic City, maybe there is a way to re-create it under local control.
Or, they could just wait for the current direction of the pageant to cause its demise (because it will) and just begin again.