Intrepid writers will go to extraordinary lengths to get their stories. Some go behind enemy lines, some live on the street with the homeless, some disguise themselves to see what it's like to be a different race or gender. The sacrifice I made to get my story was to actually sit through the recent Miss America Pageant.
Miss America has fallen on hard times. At the height of its popularity in the 60s, the contest had a TV audience of more than 80 million people. This year, not one of the major networks wanted to televise it. So a cable channel called Country Music Television aired it. And to spice things up, they moved the pageant from Atlantic City to Las Vegas.
These moves didn't make a lot of sense. If you're going to move it to Country Music Television, shouldn't there have been some connection to country music — other than the commercials for the show "Trick My Truck?" And why move it to Las Vegas if you're not going to use the Vegas background in a meaningful way. Not one of the contestants chose shooting craps for the talent competition.
There was a period when Miss America was kind of camp or kitsch. Comics would talk about contestants who'd say in the same breath that they'd like to see World Peace and No More Split Ends. You know something's outside the mainstream of popular culture when comedians aren't even making fun of it anymore.
And these young women this year were not "airheads." They all seemed intelligent and committed to their education. That's important progress, but it didn't make for compelling television.
Even though all the women wore bikinis, the swimsuit competition seemed completely sexless. The talent competition provided a chance for me to get up and get a snack. Finally, the contest was narrowed down to three contestants. I couldn't follow how it got narrowed down, but I was glad that it had. The three were all asked to "describe a significant experience from your childhood and the impact it had on you today." One of them talked about surviving an awkward childhood when she wore unattractive glasses, one talked about her parents' values helping her overcome any prejudice towards her for being an Asian American, and one talked about ballet. Ballet trumped self-esteem and parental values, so Miss Oklahoma, Jennifer Berry, was declared Miss America for 2006. And she got the most scholarship money.
The whole thing ended with Bert Park's recorded voice being piped in, singing the Miss America song.
I'm sure there were times in my life that I have spent a duller two hours, but never before without having someone trying to sell me a whole-life policy. I know it's sad to see an institution die, but it's tough to watch this thing choking on life support. It just might be time to let the Miss America Pageant die an almost dignified death. Continue to give out the college scholarships, but do away with the painful smiles, evening gowns, and tap dancing.
But if those involved in the "Pageant" want it to continue no matter what, I have some suggestions. To compete with today's "reality television," it's far too tame. I know it's a tradition for all the contestants to hold hands and act like they love each other, but the ratings would definitely go up if we got to see some bad-mouthing and backstabbing. A hidden camera in the dressing room wouldn't hurt.
And let the women fight. Literally. A couple of rounds of boxing or wrestling would certainly bring in some viewers.
In the past, Miss America has been no friend to scandals, but now it's time to change all that. Encourage the contestants to bribe the judges. And if there were a rule that at least one contestant has to fool around with one of the judges, that pageant will be back on network TV faster than you can say, "Sweeps."
But is it really worth doing away with all its tradition just to keep it on TV? That's a question the heads of the Miss America Organization are going to have to answer. But if they don't do something to change things, I don't think it will be on Country Music Television next year. It's quite possible that from now on, the only place we'll be watching the Miss America Pageant is on the History Channel. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for SportsLine.com. He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2006 CBS. All rights reserved.