Three-year deal for beauty pageant

ABC has rescued the Miss America Pageant.

Under a three-year deal, the event returns to the Alphabet net in January. Pact reps a return to broadcast TV for the pageant, which moved to cable after ABC dropped it in 2005 due to low ratings.

The Miss America Organization board chairman Sam Haskell and prexy/CEO Art McMaster are set to announce the arrangement today. In re-establishing the relationship with ABC, Haskell said the network “shares many of our same ideals and tradition.”

ABC’s decision to bring back the pageant comes as the networks continue to experience ratings growth for big events — including the Super Bowl, Oscars, Grammys and Emmys. Some of that success has been attributed to the growth of social networking.

Miss America also saw a ratings uptick this year on TLC, thanks in part to a decision to tap Rush Limbaugh as a judge.

“It had been a goal of mine to build up an audience base again so we’d look attractive to a broadcast network,” Haskell said.

As part of the setup, Tall Pony Prods. (“Radio Music Awards,” “Fashion Rocks”) is on board to handle the live telecast. Anthony Eaton and Lauren Harris are exec producers.

NBC carried Miss America for 30 years, but dumped the pageant in 1997 as it struck a partnership instead with Donald Trump and rival Miss USA.

ABC then took over the event in 1997, only to see ratings for the pageant drop nearly 50% over the course of nine years — finally opting not to renew after Miss America 2005 was crowned in late 2004. Miss America found itself on hard times after that, moving to niche-oriented cablers. First stop was country music outlet CMT, where it hit rock bottom in 2007 — averaging just 2.4 million viewers. TLC ran the pageant over the past three years, bringing the aud up to 4.5 million this past year.

But TLC’s option was up, and while there was some initial interest from the cabler in renewing the deal, the two sides could not come to terms.

Former mega-agent Haskell had his eyes set on pitching his old pals at broadcast — and given the fact that Miss America’s median age had declined while on cable, he thought the timing was right.

The organization had also been taking several steps in trying to revive the event — moving the contest from its longtime Atlantic City base to Las Vegas in 2006, for example, and adding a reality competition at one point (though not this year) to the TLC run.

“For the organization to thrive, we need young girls to continue to grow up to want to be Miss America,” said Haskell, whose wife, Mary Donnelly Haskell, was once Miss Mississippi. Haskell works pro bono for the Miss America org.

Haskell and Miss America were assisted in the ABC negotiation by former Alphabet business affairs chief Mark Pedowitz (now of Pine Street Entertainment), as well as Haskell’s former William Morris colleague John Ferriter (of Octagon Entertainment) and the Buckeye Group’s Billy Goldberg and Kevin Kroos.

Deal comes just in time for Miss America’s 90th anniversary, Haskell noted.

Meanwhile, in differentiating his pageant from Miss USA, Haskell touted Miss America’s scholarship credentials.

“Our girls require community service and must have a talent,” he said. “There’s also a requirement to be in college. And we make sure that every single one of our women leave with scholarship money.”

Haskell declined to comment on ABC’s new license fee for the pageant. The Alphabet net paid $5.6 million for the telecast when it last aired Miss America in September 2004.

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