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Prime-Time Champ Is a Spelling Bee First

Times Staff Writer

Katharine Close of Spring Lake, N.J., won the 79th Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, the first girl to win the event since 1999 and the first contestant to do so on live prime-time television.

“I couldn’t believe it, I was just in shock,” said Close, 13, who won in the 20th round on the word “ursprache.”

Her look of joy -- or maybe it was relief -- as she held up the trophy was just what ABC executives were counting on when they bet that the bee, popularized by several recent movies and a musical, could become the nation’s newest reality TV phenomenon.

The broadcast featured the finals of a competition involving 10.5 million spellers around the nation. Only 275 were summoned to Washington, and over two days this week, the finalists were winnowed to 13 youngsters who won the right to take the stage Thursday night.

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“These aren’t nerds, they are intellectual athletes,” said Andrea Wong, ABC’s executive vice president for alternative programming. “They’re all incredibly likable kids that you’re rooting for.”

Television added a lot of production headaches -- and Hollywood glamour -- to the festivities. The 13 finalists got their hair and makeup done by professional stylists, and huge TV monitors allowed the crowd in the Grand Hyatt’s basement ballroom close-ups of participants.

Contestants dropped out quickly -- two in the first 20 minutes of the two-hour broadcast -- so producers had to “accordion” the final rounds with set pieces about some of the finalists. One video feature showed contestants in earlier rounds reacting to the “bell” that signaled they had erred, dropping them from the competition. As with any live sports event, a certain amount of padding accompanied the action.

But then competition tightened, and two contestants -- Close and Finola Hackett of Alberta, Canada -- successfully plowed through the 25 championship words. As the girls spelled past the show’s 10 p.m. slated close, ABC stayed on the air, pushing an ABC Prime Time special with Diane Sawyer back by about 15 minutes.

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One contestant had a near-death experience -- Saryn Hooks heard the bell in Round 8, but judges later realized that she had given the correct spelling of “hechsher” while their word list incorrectly listed “hechscher.” Judges reinstated her after a commercial break. She was eliminated in Round 11, settling for third place.

ABC wasn’t alone in betting on the once-stodgy bee. Some $70,000 was wagered on PinnacleSports.com, which offered bets on whether the winner would wear glasses (nope, despite 3-2 odds), or be a boy (odds said a girl had a 5-4 chance) or be home-schooled (odds were 5-2 in favor, but Jonathan Horton of Gilbert, Ariz., last of the home-schoolers, dropped out in Round 10).

As spellers were eliminated, they were joined by their parents onstage, receiving consolation hugs. They did not go home empty-handed -- even runners-up got cash awards, along with dictionary CDs -- and the winner stood to take home more than $42,000 in cash and prizes.

In recent years, the emotional angst of youngsters grappling with words most adults never use, let alone spell, has drawn Hollywood’s attention.

In 2002, the documentary “Spellbound” received an Academy Award nomination. Richard Gere played the father of a spelling bee contestant in the 2005 film adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s novel “Bee Season,” and this year’s “Akeelah and the Bee” features a young teenager from South Central Los Angeles who rallies her entire community to support her quest for the spelling bee championship.

Last year, the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” won two Tony awards.

But it was the success of reality shows such as “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” that drove ABC’s decision to go live with the finals. ESPN has broadcast the finals since 1994. This year, the broadcast had more glitz -- seven production trailers and satellite trucks announced the entrance to the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

“We’re building a franchise,” said Wong.

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Once eliminated, contestants were often interviewed backstage. Caitlin Campbell of Amarillo, Texas, choked up when thanking her coach. And Horton, asked how he had missed the word “sciolto” (he offered “shalto”) said he erred because he anticipated the judges would select easier spellings at that stage of the contest.

And Hooks, eliminated not once but twice, offered, “Getting third place, I’ll live with that.”


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