Miss America Hopes for Rejuvenation on Cable

Over the course of 84 years, the Miss America pageant transformed itself from an obscure tourist attraction in New Jersey into an American institution.

But the spotlight has been getting smaller.

The state queens crowned in such places as Woonsocket, R.I., Derry, N.H., and Oshkosh, Wis., may have thought they'd be headed to the annual network extravaganza that's been a television staple every September for 50 years.

Well, they were wrong.

Going Cable

Jilted by the networks because of poor ratings, Miss America has been forced to go cable. Country Music Television has ridden to the rescue. It bought the show and plans to stage it, not in September, but in January at a location to be determined.

"We have a niche audience that will follow us," said Robert Arnhym, executive director of the Miss California organization. "No matter where we are, they will find us."

Maybe. But back in 1988, the show had 33 million viewers. Last year, it pulled in only 9 million -- quite a comedown. And CMT typically has an audience of just 300,000 in prime time.

"Nobody wants to see baton-twirling," said Jarrod Moses, chief executive officer of Alliance, an entertainment marketing agency. "Nobody wants to see a full-length bathing suit from the 1960s."

While there's talk of a more authentic approach to the next pageant, with plenty of unrehearsed backstage vignettes for viewers to savor, not everyone likes the idea.

"The contestants are too savvy," said Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998. "They're not gonna trash-talk each other. They're not going to, you know, say nasty things about Miss Oklahoma's evening gown just because you've got a camera backstage."

Additionally, there has been considerable concern within the Miss America organization that officials will be asked to "down-market" the pageant -- perhaps with reality show-style competitions or more scantily clad contestants. CMT hasn't said anything about what changes it intends to make beyond the delay until January.

'Still Relevant'

In Oshkosh, where they've crowned Miss Wisconsin for more than 40 years, there's not what you would call a burning desire for change. Tracy Gest, for example, has a lot riding on the future of the pageant.

"I still think it's relevant," she said. "It's very important, too."

And she should. She's the new Miss Wisconsin.

But she's at least thankful for one thing: Wherever the road leads her now, she knows it won't be ending in Oshkosh.

ABC News' Dean Reynolds originally reported this story for "World News Tonight" July 2, 2005.