Rival pageants seen as similar

In the longtime rivalry between the Miss USA and Miss America pageants, Miss USA is the flashy upstart while Miss America is the modest one with her head in a book.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

The Miss America pageant started in 1921, the talent competition was added in 1935 and the first scholarship was given in 1945, according to the organization’s website. Miss USA began as a breakaway competition, begun by a swimsuit company in 1952 that had been a sponsor of the older pageant.

“Competitors in the Miss America Pageant do it for scholarship money for college. They have diverse career interests,” says Valerie Hayes, who bills herself as the Pageant Coach and hosts an online talk radio program about pageants.

In contrast, Miss USA competitors see the pageant as a stepping stone to careers in the entertainment industry — in acting, modeling or broadcasting, she says.

Miss USA is a subset of the Miss Universe contest, a for-profit organization owned by casino mogul Donald Trump and NBCUniverse. For the past six years, the pageant was held in Las Vegas until moving to Baton Rouge for the 2014 event.

The Miss America Organization, which moved the pageant back to its historic Atlantic City, New Jersey, home last year, is a nonprofit and has connections to charities such as Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

“Since its inception, Miss USA has been unabashedly a beauty/swimsuit pageant. It hasn’t confused its identity by adding talent, making interview a main scoring component or offering educational scholarships — all of which Miss America did after it began. This has allowed the production to embrace the sex, show the women in skimpier bikinis, etc.,” says sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, a beauty pageant expert.

Do these contrasting approaches to pageantry lead to a different reaction from audiences? Not so much, says Hayes.

Actually, viewers tend to confuse the two events.

“If someone tells me they watched a pageant last night, I’ll ask which one. If they don’t know, I’ll ask if it had a talent competition. If it did, then it’s Miss America,” Hayes says. “For most viewers, they’re not that different.”

Pageant professionals and more experienced fans can distinguish the two, she added.

Not surprisingly, the subtle contrast between the pageants has not resulted in much difference in viewership in recent years. Both are significantly down from Miss America’s heyday in the 1950s, when the show in 1952 drew 39 percent of the TV audience.

Last year was an exception. Miss America dashed ahead of Miss USA, capturing around 8 million viewers, its best ratings since 2004, when the pageant last appeared on ABC.

Miss USA had 4.6 million viewers on NBC, perhaps because it aired at the same time as the NBA finals, according to website zap2it.com, which analyzes Nielsen ratings.

Previously, Miss America had looked to be on the rocks, with poor ratings prompting ABC to drop the show and the organization forced to move on to cable stations. Picked up by CMT in 2004, it faltered even more.

“The production was abysmal,” Hayes says.

CMT also moved the pageant from its original home in Atlantic City to Los Angeles. The cable station then dropped the Miss America pageant in 2007, after which TLC decided to air it.

While at TLC, the pageant’s ratings climbed back, rising to 4.5 million, up from 2 million to 3 million during its time at CMT. It returned to ABC in 2011.