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The most intriguing ratings news about the telecast of Saturday night's Miss America pageant is that the ratings grew significantly as the night progressed — by a whopping 47 percent (2.8 million viewers) from the first half-hour to the last. This has led to suspicions that the pageant benefited from a big drop-off in the audience for the NFL playoff game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. The game grabbed huge ratings overall, but it lost more than eight million viewers between the 9:00 hour and the 10:00 hour as Tom Brady's Patriots beat Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos in a 45-10 rout.
It was a close cousin to last year's results, when the pageant gained an almost identical 2.5 million viewers on a night when another NFL football game turned into a rout. The bottom line seems to be that Miss America should always hope for really uninteresting football games — and that you never want to pigeonhole football fans or pageant viewers. ("Enough football! Bring on the pageant!")
In some ways, it's surprising that Miss America — who's now Miss Wisconsin, the opera-singing Laura Kaeppeler — still exists, in part because she (as an institution) seemed close to death a couple of years ago. The ratings had fallen so far by 2006 that the pageant moved to cable channel CMT, and then to TLC, where ratings fell even further. ABC took the pageant back last year and the ratings perked up somewhat, but they're still nothing like they were in the 1970s and 1980s, when Miss America was one of the big events on the television calendar, along with the Oscars and the Super Bowl.
The sunny view of the declining ratings is to suggest that we've outgrown the idea of women posing in evening gowns in order to win scholarships. After all, the Miss America organization tenaciously touts the fact that it is the "world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women," but perhaps we no longer think that's the best possible way to apportion money for school.
That sunny view, that Miss America is in decline because it's out of step with the times or with modern views of women, may be appealing, but it doesn't make a lot of sense if you look at the rest of television. In a world where 10.3 million people watched the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show a couple of months ago, and where Jersey Shore is a hit, Miss America certainly isn't losing viewers because the viewing public is standing there with its collective arms crossed, saying, "WELL I NEVER."
It could be that what holds Miss America back these days isn't the fact that it rewards and spotlights young women wearing a predetermined uniform of big hair, big teeth, and lots of makeup. Perhaps it's the fact that it tries to be coy about it. Miss America used to be an opportunity to admire pretty girls that came with a certain veneer of dignity. But if you've been watching American television recently, you know that nobody's making money on dignity. If you want to pick sides in a group of pretty young women who look eerily similar to each other, you can watch The Bachelor. And if you want to watch entertaining television about smart and talented women, then you can watch them do something smart that requires talent — watch the women on Project Runway or Top Chef.
Yes, the women of Miss America may well be highly intelligent and highly talented (and some of their later careers absolutely support that hypothesis), and they tell you so. But they could all be Nobel Prize winners of the future, and that wouldn't mean that was ever why television viewers were tuning in. Now, there are more straightforward ways to see hot women and more straightforward ways to appreciate smart and talented women, so a beauty contest that swears up and down that it also rewards brains — even if that's entirely true — seems to fall into a crack that doesn't need filling.
Or maybe it's significant that the Miss America ratings started to fall within a few years after the 1984 Vanessa Williams "scandal" in which she resigned over a bunch of old nude photographs (in which nobody did anything illegal and which she claimed were being published without her consent). It was a moment in which the pageant seemed determined to protect an idea of elevated moral character, but it did raise the question of how an organization that handed out scholarship money based even in part on how you look in a swimsuit could be protecting the virtue of the nation's young women. How, after all, is it that it's okay to spray-glue a bathing suit to your behind for scholarship money, but it's dirty to pose nude for rent money?
When I was growing up, Miss America was presented as a little set of stories: Miss So-and-so, pretty blonde who plays the piano and wants to be a doctor; Miss Such-and-such, pretty brunette who sings and wants to be a speech therapist; Miss Your-home-state, pretty blonde who wears a gown brilliantly and wants to be an engineer. But perhaps we're full-up on little stories. We get to know reality-show contestants better than you're ever going to get to know a contestant during a two-hour pageant. If we want to boo and hiss over the bad ones and cheer for the good ones, we're probably already watching Survivor.
Perhaps it's not shallowness that makes Miss America less appealing than it once was — perhaps it's disingenuousness. Certainly, Miss America still shows up from time to time, as the outgoing Miss America did last week when I saw her noodling on the piano during an episode of The Price Is Right. But somehow, we don't seem to enjoy a woman presented this way — smart and talented, wearing a ... crown? — like we once did.
Miss America remains a sort of catch-all title with a pretty undefined set of responsibilities. The schedule of the last Miss America suggests she spent a lot of time doing charitable events, as well as government agency events, a summit to promote conservative women leaders, and appearances for companies including Amway (for whom she seems to have done five separate appearances), the International House Of Pancakes, and Dairy Queen. (Plus appearing on The Price Is Right, of course.)
Come to think of it, maybe the real answer is that there aren't a lot of stakes in a contest where the prize is that you get to hand out free Blizzards.