The Miss America Pageant already was struggling before the current scandal led to leadership resignations and a fight for control of its board.
Its television audience continued to decline this year to 5.6 million viewers, down from 6.3 million last year and 8.6 million in 2013. It topped Nielsen’s social media ratings for the week with 1.3 million online interactions. That’s far from the 1960s, when it was the highest-rated television show in America.
After an exile to cable TV with far fewer viewers and a several year hiatus in Las Vegas, the Miss America Pageant returned to its home in Atlantic City in 2014. It needed triple the public subsidies it had previously received, $7.3 million from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to cover three years. At the end of that period, when the CRDA agreed to provide $12.5 million for another three years, many people, including the late state Sen. Jim Whelan, thought it wasn’t worth that much, considering the recovering city’s other needs.
State and city officials said the pageant’s long and positive association with Atlantic City — it had started in 1921 as a bathing beauty revue — made its promotional value to the city worth the public support. Yet last year, the CRDA and city flubbed a big part of that promotion, failing to arrange a New Year’s Eve concert to feature on national television.
The release last month of emails between pageant executives with vulgar, sexist and hateful comments about former Miss Americas forced the resignations of its president, board president, chief operating officer and board vice president. Dick Clark Productions, the pageant’s television partner, severed ties to it.
The remaining board members said they would seek the help of former Miss Americas in choosing new leaders for the nonprofit organization. But several said that wasn’t enough — they wanted the entire board to resign so new leadership, led on an interim basis by former Miss America and television commentator Gretchen Carlson, could take steps to save the Miss America program.
On Monday the board conceded. Most members resigned, Carlson was named chairwoman and three other former winners also joined the board. Those are the right steps, considering that the board was tainted by the appearance of at least complicity in the toxic management of the pageant program. The remaining prior board members should depart as well, unless an independent investigation clears them not only of misconduct but failure to do their jobs.
We think having women dominate the management of the Miss America Pageant made sense before the scandal. The organization showcases potential women leaders every year. Now it’s imperative.
An important voice — the state pageant organizations — has yet to be heard publicly. They are the core of Miss America, providing its strength and integrity. Carlson said she and the new board would work with the state organizations on additional board members and management.
Then they must develop and implement a strategy to restore the pageant.
Ending toxic management will be only the start. Being relentlessly positive about its women should be easy.
The serious challenge will be finding a way to showcase exceptional women without objectifying them — in an exciting spectacle that engages and entertains everyday Americans.
If the pageant could once again make Americans feel like this is their Miss, it would earn a growing audience, deserve financial support and need a diminishing amount of it.