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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Miss America’ adds viewer voting

By Kathleen Hennessey Associated Press

It’s been slow and not necessarily painless, but Miss America is moving into the 21st century – one well-practiced, high-heeled step at a time.

Last year, she got a reality show complete with absurd challenges and snarky judges. Then she was given an updated look, courtesy of the makeover specialists at the cable network TLC, her current television home.

This year, she’s moving closer to the viewer-voting format that made “American Idol” a star.

For the first time, four contestants will be voted into the pageant finals by viewers of “Miss America: Countdown to the Crown,” the four-part reality series that ended Friday on TLC.

The viewer favorites will be named along with 11 other finalists at the pageant airing tonight at 8 from the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas (cable channel 38 in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene).

It’s just the latest change in the continuing search for a new audience for a venerable institution.

After years of sinking ratings, ABC dropped the 88-year-old pageant in 2005, forcing it to uproot from the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey to the Las Vegas Strip. The pageant also moved to cable television, where only a fraction of the viewers – and revenue – were waiting.

Without a network television contract, the amount of scholarship money awarded plummeted. In 2007, the Miss America Organization distributed $445,000 in scholarships, less than half the total four years earlier, according to the nonprofit’s federal tax returns.

This year’s winner takes a $50,000 scholarship along with a year of travel and public appearances.

Last year’s pageant was a bright night for Miss America. The number of viewers rose 50 percent over the previous year’s airing on Country Music Television.

The lead-in reality series “Miss America: Reality Check” appeared to have drawn new viewers by promising to make over and mock the contestants’ dated style. Updates to the live pageant broadcast loosened things up.

Clinton Kelly, the sharp-tongued star of TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” will make a return appearance tonight to pull some unscripted conversation from contestants.

“Extra” host Mario Lopez, who previously hosted the pageant in 2007, will be master of ceremonies.

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