ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – ABC has dropped Miss America (search), leaving the famous beauty pageant without a network TV outlet for the first time in 50 years.
The network, which had carried the annual telecast since 1997 with a series of one-year contracts, notified Miss America Organization officials that they will not pick up the option this year, acting President and CEO Arthur McMaster (search) said Wednesday.
"We are now free to pursue other parties who have expressed interest in our organization, and we are excited at the limitless opportunities that are now available for us to grow our brand," he said.
The move, which comes on the heels of a Sept. 18 pageant that drew a record low 9.8 million viewers, could jeopardize the foundation of a program that grew from an Atlantic City publicity stunt into a TV icon, largely on the strength of the contest and crowning beamed into millions of living rooms each September.
Since Lee Meriwether (search) was crowned on Sept. 11, 1954 in the first televised pageant, Miss America has grown into a nonprofit corporation that makes available more than $40 million annually in scholarship aid and oversees 52 local pageants.
"It's certainly an ominous sign," said former CEO Leonard Horn. "Whether or not they can get a contract with another network is going to be very important."
ABC officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
ABC, which took over Miss America after 30-year sponsor NBC lost interest in 1996, has had rocky relations with Miss America officials in recent years, in part because of the sinking ratings.
McMaster, who had pressed the network to move Miss America to a weeknight and televise some part of its three nights of preliminary competition, said the pageant was happy to part ways with ABC.
"There's already been companies that have contacted us and expressed an interest," he said. "This thing's been around for 84 years and it'll be around for another 84. I'm not going to say I'm not worried, but I think there's much more out there."
Without a network, Miss America would lose its chief asset — a nationally televised spectacle.
Moreover, the loss deals the Miss America Organization a financial blow. In 2003, ABC paid $5.6 million for the rights to televise it.
"There's no doubt, TV is the catalyst that keeps this company going. But it's not a one-night-a-year organization. It's a 52-weeks-a-year organization. We want to grow beyond that one night," said McMaster.