A look at why the cultural touchstone has lost its luster

In 1991, when Katie Stam was just 5 years old, growing up in Seymour, Ind., you could spy the pint-size beauty cutting cereal boxes into princess crowns and fashioning sashes out of thick ribbons with her favorite cousin. You could also spy Stam, in mid-September of that year, watching her beloved Miss America pageant on NBC with 26.7 million other television viewers. ”We would pretend we were Miss America,” she remembers fondly, noting that her family gathered around the television annually for the show. ”We had the most amazing connection with the pageant. It was such a big deal to us.” And to the rest of the country. The Miss America pageant was a true television event, close to the Oscars and the Super Bowl.

No longer. When current Miss America Stam, now 23, traded in her homemade crown for the real deal last January on TLC, only 3.5 million viewers tuned in, a stunning drop of 87 percent from when she was a little girl. And now, on Jan. 30 (at 8 p.m. on TLC), Stam will relinquish her title as a new Miss America is crowned. The question is, will anyone notice? The pageant’s days of dominating watercooler conversations are long gone.

So who, or what, killed Miss America? Blame the decline of Western civilization, says Mario Lopez, who will be hosting the show for a third time. Decades ago, the Miss America pageant was a rare chance to see a little skin and sexuality on TV — but now that’s everywhere. ”There are so many things these days, like Maxim, where you can check out beautiful women,” says Lopez. The bathing-suit competition sure seems a lot less risqué when compared with the half-naked ladies now cavorting in hot tubs on scores of reality TV shows. Even feminists have a hard time getting worked up about Miss America these days. ”As a feminist, I want to rejoice in the fact that the Miss America pageant has less viewers,” says author Jessica Valenti, ”but I find it kind of difficult to, because I have a feeling those millions of viewers are just watching The Bachelor.”

And indeed they are. While Miss America could easily be considered the original reality competition show, it has been completely eclipsed by its 21st-century offspring. Viewers used to argue the merits of Miss Montana versus Miss Rhode Island; now they’re on either Team Kris or Team Adam. Fans used to sit wondering whether Miss Arkansas would get the crown; now they can’t wait to find out which woman receives the final rose of the evening. Ericka Dunlap has seen both sides. She won Miss America in 2003 and came in third on the most recent edition of CBS’ The Amazing Race. ”People have the option to not watch perfection personified,” says Dunlap of the gravitation away from pageants to reality TV. ”They just want to watch entertaining television, so we enter into some trash, like the dating reality shows filled with these girls who are willing to bicker and fight.” She may have a point: The biggest notoriety Miss America has received in the past 30 years was in 1984, when nude photos surfaced of reigning queen (and now Ugly Betty star) Vanessa Williams, who was subsequently forced to abdicate her title.

How, then, can Miss America keep up with the times, and tastes, of TV audiences? Originally reluctant to change (which led to its break with ABC in 2004), the pageant has finally gotten a subtle but important makeover: In 2006, the show moved to Las Vegas from its longtime home of Atlantic City in a bid to dazzle younger viewers. And in 2008 and 2009, TLC (after grabbing the show from CMT) produced lead-up reality shows to gather interest in the contestants and build them as personalities viewers could grow attached to. ”We recognized that the difficulty with our show was that people didn’t get to know these contestants,” says Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization. Additionally, TLC introduced American Idol-style ”America’s Choice” voting, which allows some of the pageant’s top 15 finalists to be chosen by viewers. Stam and her runner-up both made the finals through this program.

The nipping and tucking continues in 2010. Producers are trying a one-hour behind-the-curtain special (hosted by What Not to Wear‘s Clinton Kelly) to air the night before the pageant. Viewers will see the preliminary competitions, which have never been shown in the organization’s 89-year history. And then there’s the long-standing goal of keeping Miss America a pseudo-celebrity. This past year, Stam rode a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — the first Miss America to do so in nearly a decade. ”I have said from the moment I started that Miss America needs to be on the cover of Elle magazine,” she says, ”and she needs to make appearances on the hottest TV shows, like The Office or CSI.” (One well-known TV producer, however, told EW he ”doesn’t care about Miss America unless there’s something juicy or scandalous about her.”)

Ultimately, the organizers behind the show know their treasured pageant will never again draw 30 million viewers. And they seem okay with that future. ”As long as we can provide good ratings to our television partner and keep them happy, we feel like we can really showcase this pageant a lot better in years to come,” McMaster says. ”This is one of the last great American icons. They may not have seen the pageant, but everybody knows that name, Miss America.” But for how long?