ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – In any other year, Miss Delaware Becky Bledsoe (search) would be making her travel plans. The folks at Fischer Florists would know when they have to deliver all the corsages and bouquets. Boardwalk Hall would have a two-week period blocked out for pageant rehearsals, preliminary competitions and the crowning of the new Miss America (search).
But this is not any other year. Miss America doesn't have a date, and the uncertainty has her world in a tizzy.
With three months to go before its traditional start, the beauty pageant is still without a TV contract and has yet to establish a date for the crowning, which traditionally is held in early September.
"It is, candidly, looking more and more like September's out of the picture," said Bob Arnhym, executive director of the Miss California Scholarship Pageant. "Logistically, there's an awful lot of detail that has to be attended to."
Dropped by ABC last fall because of record-low viewership, the Miss America pageant has been searching for a new television outlet to carry the 84-year-old pageant.
Art McMaster, CEO of the Miss America Organization, has declined repeated requests for an interview about the pageant's hunt for a new TV outlet. Spokeswoman Jenni Glenn said Friday the pageant is in "final negotiations with interested networks" and will have an announcement within two weeks.
Keeping the pageant on the air is a necessity — both for visibility's sake and because the Miss America Organization (search) has historically depended on TV revenue to run the show and pay for the scholarships awarded to contestants. In 2003, $5.6 million of its $6.9 million in revenue came from ABC, according to its tax return.
The delay in setting a date has left state pageants, their contestants, Miss America vendors and the operators of Boardwalk Hall — where Miss America is named each year — in limbo.
"I'm asked all the time, 'Hey, what's going on with Miss America?'" said Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. "Art McMaster assures me there will be a pageant this year. They do have a couple opportunities on the table, but he wouldn't tell me what they are."
Pageant officials have said they are considering a shift away from the tired formula of the telecast — which drew only 9.8 million viewers last year — in favor of something more in line with reality TV shows.
After being cast off by ABC, they hired talent agency William Morris and are said to be aggressively pursuing cable networks, with McMaster proposing to "open up the sacred doors of Miss America," as he told an interviewer in April.
Instead of a once-a-year special that struggles to interest viewers, McMaster has pitched the idea of Miss America as a show aired over several nights, with viewers getting to know the contestants as they do on "American Idol" and other reality shows.
Whatever it is, Miss America's next TV outlet will likely scotch the saccharine speeches about world peace in favor of televised backbiting among the women vying for the crown.
"I don't think there's an audience for squeaky clean," said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for ad-buying firm Carat. "It has to be modernized in the way we've all been fed such reality. You need to see the tears, the drama, the makeup, the mascara, the crisis of finding out you have a zit."
Meanwhile, the Miss America world waits.
"I'm getting impatient. I want to know," said Leah Summers, who runs the Miss West Virginia Scholarship Pageant.
"Every year, we end the show with a line like 'Congratulations to the new Miss West Virginia, Suzie Q, and please join us as we watch her compete in Atlantic City on September 19th.' We can't say that this year. We can't say where or when."