Thursday, September 18, 2003

Producers hope to bring little 'reality' to pageant

By John Curran
The Associated Press

With its amateur singers, head-to-head contests and gradual eliminations, the Miss America pageant - in some respects - was TV's first reality show.

It was Sept. 11, 1954. For the first time ever, black-and-white images of the Atlantic City pageant were beamed across America, showing young women parading in elegant evening gowns and tight-fitting swimsuits.

Viewers loved it. With its parade of pulchritude, hokey talent offerings and an end-of-show coronation, the pageant was a hit, drawing 27 million viewers.

Nearly 50 years later, the formula remains fundamentally the same, for better or worse.

But viewers who dial up this year's model (8 p.m. Saturday, Channels 9, 7) will see touches of television's reality revolution all over the three-hour telecast.

Hoping to jazz up Miss America's formula, the show's producers have enlisted some familiar faces to go along with the pretty ones.

Hosted by Tom Bergeron (Hollywood Squares), it will include:

• A viewing party hosted by Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter, the couple who emerged from last spring's ABC romantic reality show The Bachelorette as real-life sweethearts.

• American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken singing his hit single "This Is The Night."

• The five finalists in a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style pop quiz, standing at podiums and answering questions about current events, geography and U.S. history.

And for the first time ever, the winners of each contest within the pageant will be announced, letting viewers know who's ahead every step of the way.

Last year, about 12 million people - an all-time low - watched the crowning of Miss Illinois, Erika Harold, down from 25.3 million just eight years ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

It's Bob Bain's job to recover some of those viewers, and he's betting reality TV touches can do it.

"The (contestant-by-contestant) eliminations, the use of civilians as opposed to celebrities, being live, they are all reality TV elements," says Bain, the contest's TV producer, "But after that the comparison stops. What we want to do is imbue our proceedings with the basic tenets of reality TV, where applicable," Bain says.

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