ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) – Jittery baton twirlers and sequin-clad tap dancers might be getting the hook.

Fed up with declining ratings, ABC is shortening the annual Miss America telecast – from three hours to two – and could end its talent competition.

Miss America officials and pageant fans want to keep it, saying the amateur routines distinguish Miss America from other beauty pageants.

ABC officials weren’t talking Friday, and acting pageant CEO Art McMaster said no decision had been made.

“In the initial sit down, ABC made a comment saying “By the way, we notice the ratings have dropped on the talent side,”‘ said McMaster. “They want to change how it’s shown on television.”

Introduced in 1935, the two-minute routines have historically defined the Miss America experience. But to viewers, they’re a major turnoff.

For years, the 10 semifinalists got to perform their routines on the stage during the annual telecast. In 1999, the pageant cut the number in half, trying to stem viewership losses that occur during the talent routines.

In pageant circles, the idea of eliminating talent acts is about as welcome as an off-key Steinway.

“It would be a crime,” said Bo Mock, director of the Miss Houston Scholarship Pageant, a Miss America local. “It’s always been what sets us apart.”

ABC, which saw a record-low 10.3 million tune in for the crowning of Miss Florida Ericka Dunlap last fall, is negotiating a new deal with the Miss America Organization. Network spokeswoman Cathy Rehl had no immediate comment on ABC’s plans for this year’s pageant when reached Friday.

Once the financial terms are complete, Miss America and ABC will turn to talking about production plans for this year’s pageant, scheduled for Sept. 18, according to McMaster.

The idea, apparently, is to figure out why Miss America talent routines drive viewers away while “American Idol” and other television shows featuring unknown amateurs have proven so popular.

“Shows like “American Idol’ and “Star Search’ that are talent-driven have shown that America is interested in seeing regular kids performing talent and becoming invested in that professionally,” said Fran Skinner-Lewis, who runs the Miss Illinois pageant.

She suggests cutting the number of live talent performances or sprinkling them through the telecast – instead of presenting them one after another – as a compromise.

“We need to rethink where we are and look at showcasing our best talent, as an opportunity to redefine that element of the Miss America pageant that distinguishes us,” Skinner-Lewis said.

On the Net:

AP-ES-02-06-04 1653EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.