The Miss America Pageant, dumped by ABC last year after suffering achy-breaky ratings, is high-tailing it over to cable's Country Music Television network, which is averaging about 300,000 viewers in prime time this year.

Yee haw!

The Miss America Organization and CMT yesterday slapped each other on the back and talked about their shared "core values" and their mutual admiration of the American "heartland."

"We needed to find a better partner, one that better understands our values," Miss America Organization CEO Art McMaster told The TV Column yesterday.

"CMT's audience is the heartland of America; that's the same type of loyal audience 'Miss America' has enjoyed; they respect the traditions and values of this organization.

"[CMT] will showcase our values and traditions: We are about talent, we are about eveningwear, we are about swimwear. It's about intelligence; it's a competition."

CMT's vice president of programming, Paul Villadolid, had this to say: "Miss America is an important institution that really appeals to heartland sensibilities.

"We share their core values and reflect their lifestyles," he said, which includes "celebrating small-town sensibilities," rooting for the underdog and "remaining very positive and optimistic."

No word on whether those core values include increasingly skimpy swimsuits; last year the show raised eyebrows for aggressive conservation of fabric in the suits the contestants were made to wear.

Villadolid and McMaster also were sketchy about how they plan to handle the talent portion of the competition, which last year was all but wiped out in the ratings hunt.

Under terms of the new deal, CMT gets telecast rights for two years with the option to pick up the show through 2011. "Miss America" will be moved to January from its traditional air date in September -- it was originally conceived in the '20s by Atlantic City businessmen as a gimmick to keep vacationers there past Labor Day, according to the Miss America Organization. The January date is needed to give the organization and CMT time to plan for show changes and for a marketing and promo campaign, Villadolid explains.

CMT hopes to rescue the oldest televised beauty pageant with the addition of behind-the-scenes programming leading up to the pageant's telecast -- programming that will let viewers get to know the competitors. Plans are to run the build-up stuff on CMT and VH1; both cable networks are part of MTV Networks, owned by Viacom.

But, CMT said, it will still honor the "rich tradition" of the pageant, in which pretty young women parade around in little swimsuits and four-inch heels for the opportunity to spend the next year touting their "platform" of choice: AIDS awareness and education, curing childhood cancer, etc.

"If you look at Miss America [on broadcast TV], it was a little bit disadvantaged, a franchise that existed one day out of the year," Villadolid said. "On CMT we plan to make 'Miss America' a vibrant part of CMT's tapestry, so [it] will not just exist on one night."

ABC, which had broadcast the pageant for the past eight years, announced in October -- after its September broadcast logged an average of just 9.8 million viewers -- that it would not continue the relationship. That was the franchise's smallest audience since its television debut in 1954 and a mere shadow of the more than 25 million who'd tuned in as recently as 1995, when it was broadcast on NBC.

Even half the haul of that final, disappointing showing on ABC would be huge for CMT, which is available in about 77 million homes.

CMT's most successful special to date, the CMT Music Awards, averaged 2.9 million viewers in its initial telecast on April 11. CMT reran the show several times in prime time, and over those multiple plays the awards show's cumulative average was about 4.8 million viewers -- about half the audience scored by "Miss America" last year.

In interviews about yesterday's announcement with the Reporters Who Cover Television, however, CMT was slinging around a 15.8 million viewer number for the music trophy show over its five telecasts. That figure, as Reuters noted in its coverage, is about 50 percent more than the 2004 "Miss America" audience. Best we can figure, the stat is a cumulative number of the people who tuned in to watch as little as a few minutes of the 21/2-hour program over those multiple prime-time plays.

When ABC pink-slipped the competition, Miss America was left without a broadcast outlet for the first time in 50 years, and TV industry navel-gazers forecast, correctly as it turns out, that it meant the end of the chick-fest on a major broadcast network.

In drawing just under 10 million viewers, "Miss America" had copped nearly the same crowd as the two-hour finale of Fox's plastic surgery "beauty" pageant, "The Swan." But while the median age of "Swan" viewers was 37, the median age of the "Miss America" audience was a broadcast-toxic 51.

Villadolid said yesterday the CMT connection should young-up the pageant's audience, noting that while "we target adults 18 to 49, we're having a strong surge in adults 18 to 34 over the last six months or so."

Deidre Downs, who won the Miss America crown in September, gets to keep it till January 2006, when the next edition of the pageant takes place in Atlantic City and airs on CMT.