Those in charge are convinced that this is the year that the iconic but long-beleaguered beauty pageant re-establishes its rightful place in the nation's consciousness as it returns triumphantly to network TV on Saturday for its 90th strut after five years in the cable wilderness. ABC's live broadcast will begin at 9 p.m. EST.
"America loves a comeback story," Sam Haskell, chairman of the Miss America Organization, told AOL News. "When you figure out how education and scholarship and talent and service are all put in the forefront, there was nothing to do but come back."
It's been many years since a Miss America became a household name -- quick, name last year's winner! The public's attention has turned toward the competing Miss USA pageant, thanks largely to a steady succession of sex and political scandals. ABC dumped Miss America after the 2005 pageant, so the show moved first to CMT and then to TLC and from downtrodden Atlantic City to glitzy Las Vegas.
Rather than hop into the Jerry Springer gutter, however, Miss America partisans opted for the more Oprah-esque approach, emphasizing good deeds and inspiration. They stressed that the Miss America Organization raises and distributes millions of dollars for scholarships and requires its contestants to do public service.
"You're always telling people the difference between Miss USA and Miss America," admitted Miss America 2000 Heather French Henry of Kentucky, who spent the past decade lobbying Congress for more funding for homeless war veterans. "We're a nonprofit organization dedicated to scholarship and they're not. I think our mission is creating positive headlines without having controversy."
Haskell, a former William Morris executive, is married to a former Miss Mississippi. He took the gig as chairman six years ago with the aim of rescuing the near-bankrupt franchise and restoring the tiara's gleam. The pageants flailed on CMT but enjoyed an uptick over the past three years on TLC thanks in part to a six-episode reality show that aired about the contestants in the weeks leading up to the pageant.
The 2010 viewership hit 4.5 million, winning the key 18-to-49 female demographic and lowering the average viewer's age from 58 to 37, Haskell said. That drew the interest of shoe retailer DSW, which agreed to buy half the commercial time on the show. ABC then agreed to a new three-year deal, Haskell said, and the reality show was no longer necessary.
"The reality show was a means to an end," he said. "It got us attention, helped us lower the median age of our viewers. We're not doing that anymore."
The return to ABC has also meant a new fleet of network-related judges including "The View" star Joy Behar, "Dancing With the Stars" pro Tony Dovolani and "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry. DWTS winner/host Brooke Burke and "The Bachelor" Chris Harrison are hosting.
In the week leading up to the pageant, the 53 contestants -- representing the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- have been largely sequestered at Planet Hollywood in rehearsals, stepping out to take in a Barry Manilow show or to do photo ops. They're lorded over by hostesses who ensure they don't gamble or behave untoward, bowing the quaint elements that are part of the pageant's DNA.
"Some of the traditions that have remained the same, the chaperones, the inability for girls to walk by themselves through the casino," Henry said. "That guarded veil between the girls and the outside world is good because that way they can concentrate and not be bombarded."
But they couldn't escape the outside world this year after the massacre in Tucson left six dead and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., fighting for her life. Miss Arizona Katy Bulkley visited with Giffords in December and recalled a 10-minute appointment stretching into three hours.
The Bulkley-Giffords interaction is typical of Miss America contestants, who frequently get to contact local leaders. That, again, is more proof that Miss America is a more serious event than Miss USA, Haskell said.
"Sure there are beautiful girls in our program, but it's all about education, scholarship and talent," he said. "We're the only organization that can make that claim. Miss USA is beautiful girls, period."
The reigning Miss America -- that's Caressa Cameron of Virginia, by the way -- said that despite the less intense spotlight, she has been extremely busy speaking about her cause, HIV/AIDS education. She's living proof, she said, that Miss America is not irrelevant.
"Even when we weren't on network TV, you'd hear little girls say, 'When I grow up I want to be Miss America,'" Cameron said. "Look at the amount of times Miss America is referenced on TV shows. I've never heard a little girl say, 'When I grow up, I want to be Miss USA.'"