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Bee spells reality for ABC

Times Staff Writer

Now that “American Idol” has bowed out for the season, ABC is betting that the show’s formula -- nervous civilians performing live -- will turn the once-stodgy National Spelling Bee into the latest reality TV phenom.

For the first time in its 79-year history, the Bee is going live in prime time with the final rounds on Thursday. Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” will host the event, broadcast for the first time in high definition with 5.1-channel surround sound.

“We’re really excited about this,” said Andrea Wong, ABC’s executive vice president for alternative programming. Wong, who brought the British hit “Dancing With the Stars” to the U.S. audience last year, said she’s been eyeing the Bee as a network television prospect for years.

“These are amazingly determined kids who have spent hours and hours every day practicing for this one moment of the year,” she said. “They’re all incredibly likable kids that you’re rooting for. These aren’t nerds; they are intellectual athletes.”

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The emotional angst of youngsters sweating in the floodlights as they try to conjure the language root or meaning context of a word to divine its correct spelling has already drawn Hollywood’s attention. The 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” kicked things off, followed by a Broadway musical and this year’s film charmer “Akeelah and the Bee,” which tracks a Los Angeles girl as she overcomes adversity to compete in the event.

The Bee has also attracted its share of writers. Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel “Bee Season” was made into a movie last year starring Richard Gere, and Rodale Press has just released a nonfiction book by pop culture writer James Maguire called “American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds.”

Maguire, author of a biography of Ed Sullivan, said he is drawn to “all the odd subcultures that make up American culture.” He went to his first Bee in 2003 and was struck by the event’s natural drama.

“These are ‘tween spellers and it adds an emotional component,” he said. “The audience gets so involved, they cheer when the kids get it, and when they strike out, they sigh with them. It adds an extra element of vulnerability.”

For much of its life, the bee was an acquired taste, the ultimate niche talent contest. Then in 1985, Balu Natarajan, a 13-year-old son of Indian American parents, beat out all comers by spelling the word “milieu.” He became an overnight sensation and many first-generation Americans came to see the Bee as a passport to acceptance in U.S. culture, encouraging their kids to compete. As a result, the list of competitors is often as much of a spelling challenge as the words.

When ESPN began broadcasting the two-day finals in Washington, D.C., in 1994, the allure of television did the rest, cementing the bee as a cultural right of passage.

“When ESPN picked it up, they really dressed up the image,” Maguire said. “There’s nothing glamorous about spelling, but there is something glamorous about being on television.”

This year ABC notched things up even further by asking the Bee’s organizers to move the final few hours to 8 p.m., and rolled the dice that it could manage the production woes of handling some 10 to 15 kids juggling words, expectations and parental pressure live in prime time (although it will be tape-delayed on the West Coast). Sponsors were thrilled.

“ABC’s decision to move the Scripps [Howard] National Spelling Bee to prime time affirms for us how deeply this unique event is ingrained in the American psyche,” Kenneth W. Lowe, president and CEO for the E.W. Scripps Co., said in a statement. “Now, with a wider national network television audience, more people than ever before will have an opportunity to share in this extraordinary celebration of academic excellence and experience the remarkable intensity of competitive spelling.”

For real-time television, the gambit is not without risk. The bee is an unscripted pyramid. Some 10.5 million school students participated in bee competitions in their home towns this year, but only 275 are being summoned to Washington. On Wednesday, they will begin a spelling marathon to winnow down the elite even further, leading up to the championship on Thursday night.

The problem for television is that, like any live sports event, there is no way to predict the ending. After the spellers are winnowed down to the last 10 or 15 Thursday (with ESPN on hand beginning at noon Eastern time), bee officials will stop the daytime event and delay what ABC is calling “the title rounds” until 8 p.m. Once the lights dim and the cameras zoom, anything could happen. A lot of kids could fade early. Or two could keep battling off words such as “logorrhea” (excessive wordiness) and “smaragdine” (the color of emeralds) until long past the network’s planned 10 p.m. signoff.

“It’s going to be tricky,” Wong said. “We’re going to have to pace it to try to predict the ending.”

The network, which owns ESPN, has stockpiled some features, as with the Olympics. There are taped packages on likely finalists, such as Samir Patel, a voracious reader who tied for third place in 2003 when he was only 9 years old and is back again this year. And the network has on hand some taped segments about the Bee itself, including a profile of the man who reads the words to the kids.

“These things will accordion the live show,” Wong said. “Like the American Music Awards, we’ll have a rough idea of timing.”

As for the audience, neither ABC nor ESPN will offer predictions, but Wong is optimistic. “We want to feel creatively about this show,” she said. “The ratings are not that important. We’re building a franchise, and that will require momentum over time.” Take that, Simon Cowell.


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