- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

LAS VEGAS (AP) — They’ll tap dance, sing and glide around the stage. They’ll don glitzy costumes, bathing suits and bright smiles in a quest for big money and a chance to see their names in lights.

Just don’t call them showgirls.

Fifty-two driven, young beauties will arrive today in Las Vegas to begin the weeklong whirlwind Miss America pageant. The televised finale airs at 8 p.m. on Jan. 21. It will be the first time in the annual pageant’s 85-year history that the winner will be crowned outside Atlantic City, N.J., a move designed to use Sin City sexiness to stop the show’s slipping TV ratings and declining popularity.

It’s also the first time the show will air on MTV Network’s Country Music Television (CMT). And, instead of the usual talk-show type host, the pageant this year will be emceed by TV hunk James Denton of “Desperate Housewives.”

The many changes raise one big question, a sad one for longtime viewers to even contemplate: What happens if the pageant’s latest incarnation doesn’t revive the venerated institution? Is “Miss America’s” survival on the line?

“I don’t even want to go there,” said Art McMaster, chief executive officer of the Atlantic City-based Miss America Organization, a nonprofit group that, along with affiliates, makes $45 million in scholarships available to women each year, including $50,000 to the winner.

Mr. McMaster said the organization has entered into a multiyear contract with CMT. He hopes the move to a cable network draws new viewers and sets up new, lower expectations for the show’s television ratings.

“Will we ever get 20 million viewers again? You know and I know that’s never going to happen,” he said. “But as long as get we the longtime pageant fans watching, we’ll be around another 85 years.”

In an attempt to cater to its die-hard followers, producers said they plan to restore the show to its earlier glory by cutting a quiz show and a casual-wear competition, elements recently borrowed from reality television and game shows to try to give the pageant a more updated feel. A record low 9.8 million viewers watched the show on ABC in 2004, a 20 percent drop since 2000 and about half the viewership that watched in 1984.

“Basic values and tradition, that is what we brought the show back to,” Mr. McMaster said.

But he also acknowledged traditional values and scholarship contests don’t always make for great television. That’s where Las Vegas comes in.

“We’re so proud of what we do all year long. However, once the show is on, it can’t be just all about highlighting traditional values. We’ve got to show we can put on a very entertaining show,” Mr. McMaster said. “Quite honestly, no other city has the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is what our show is all about.”

He hasn’t said whether the pageant plans to relocate permanently, and there has been talk the show might be held in different cities each year.

That decision may depend on how the pageant is received by Las Vegas and how the Miss America faithful react to the switch.

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