When the new Miss America, Teresa Scanlan, rang the opening bell of NASDAQ on Jan. 18, standing right along with her was someone familiar in Hollywood circles: Sam Haskell.
The former worldwide head of television for William Morris, Haskell has been spending the past few years laying the groundwork for a potential foray into politics and, a bit unexpectedly, serving as chairman of the Miss America Organization, the 90-year-old pageant that has been challenged to stay relevant in a pop landscape heavy in attitude and “American Idol.”
“The Miss America pageant is a slice of Americana,” says Haskell, backstage at the Planet Hollywood Hotel in Las Vegas, just minutes before showtime. “It is the only thing left that can create a star out of a Kansas farm girl or a Mississippi belle. It is the only thing that still, on one night, changes someone’s life forever.”
Six years ago, after he resigned from William Morris, his wife, Mary, a former Miss Mississippi who competed in the pageant in 1977, encouraged him to join the board. He intended to serve only a year, but that soon changed when the chairman was ousted and Haskell was elected to the top spot. He does it pro bono, but it is a full-time job.
At the time, not only was the pageant competing against the onslaught of reality TV, but it also had lost its spot on a broadcast net and moved to cable’s Country Music Television.
After the show landed better placement over the past few years on TLC, Haskell last year helped secure a three-year deal that had the pageant back on a major network, ABC. By wrangling such sponsors as DSW, Amway and American Signature Furniture, “we bought the time and had the money to produce the show.”
The result was an audience average of 6.6 million viewers, a 47% boost over 2010. That’s still a fraction of the blockbuster numbers the ceremony got in the three-network days of the 1960s when, as Haskell recalls, “my mother used to make sure that we were sitting in front of the television every Saturday night” that it was on.
As much as the show may evoke a bygone era — after all, the competition was the subject of a PBS “American Experience” — Haskell believes tradition, from the theme song to the scholarship program, ultimately works in its favor.
The ABC numbers beat Miss USA on NBC, a more risque ceremony that also has been prone to controversy in recent years, such as 2009, when contender Carrie Prejean caused a stir by declaring her opposition to same-sex marriage.
This year’s Miss America was asked in the Q&A portion of the evening about Wiki-Leaks, and suggested that the release of secret cables was a form of “espionage.” But at a press conference afterward, when asked to which party she planned to register to vote when she turned 18, she savvily replied, “independent.”
“I don’t think (“Miss America”) is controversial at all, and the reason it has been around for 90 years is because we have managed to find a way to keep it relevant while maintaining the tradition,” Haskell says.
Haskell may soon find himself in the less-civil world of a political campaign for governor or senator — something that has long been rumored. A year ago he and his family moved back to their native Mississippi, where he’s friends with that state’s governor, Haley Barbour.
“There are a lot of people in my home state who have asked me if I am interested in a political run one day, and the answer is yes, I am interested,” Haskell says. “I have got to establish my residency in Mississippi, which I am only one year into now. And once that is established, we will figure it out.”