Jumping the Bee

Scripps National Spelling Bee logo

TEXT OF STORY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: ABC broadcasts the finals of the National Spelling Bee tonight from Washington, D.C. It's a big move for the venerable academic contest, but after several "bee" movies and a Broadway play, some wonder whether the whole spelling contest theme is losing its buzz. Eric Niiler has the story.


ERIC NIILER: This summer, moviegoers are faced with yet another inspirational spelling bee movie at the local Cineplex.

But Akeelah and the Bee, which follows an inner-city girl spelling her way to success, has pulled in only $17 million at the box office since opening in April. Akeelah follows last year's disastrous Richard Gere drama "Bee Season" which earned less than $2 million. Still, ABC and contest officials are banking that tonight's live broadcast will be a big hit with TV viewers and sponsors.

PAIGE KIMBLE:"We are the original reality television programming."

That's Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The Cincinnati-based Scripps newspaper chain has been running the contest since 1941. Kimble says the spelling bee is all about nostalgia.

KIMBLE:"We all have spelling bee experiences that we can point back to and we can almost always remember the word or words that felled us."

Robert Thompson, director of the center for popular television at Syracuse University, says spelling bees fit right in with the craze for reality-based TV. There's instant drama, contestants get eliminated without mercy and only one winner survives.

Whether tonight's program will be a ratings winner depends on how the network puts it together. Some TV critics wonder if the spelling bee could become some something like the nerd Olympics --- complete with back stories about struggling kids coming out on top, using brainpower instead of muscles. For sure though, Thompson says tonight's spelling bee judges probably won't act like the snarky Simon Cowell of American Idol.

ROBERT THOMPSON:"There's couple things you can't do in a spelling bee when you're dealing with children, making fun of and humiliating the people who are really bad."

Most of those bad spellers will be long gone before tonight's championship round. And AdAge reporter Terry Stanley says that despite the failure of bee-themed feature films at the box office, spelling bees themselves haven't yet gone S-T-A-L-E. She says Spelling Bee promoters could take a page from American Idol, which limits its TV season to a few months every year.

TERRY STANLEY:"If there's a message to be learned from Idol, which is a tremendous success, it's: Don't wear something out."

The 275 bee finalists will be narrowed down to one champion tonight. This top speller gets more than $37,000 in cash and scholarships — plus a new dictionary.

In Washington, I'm Eric Niiler for Marketplace.

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