What this country really needs is more spelling bees. What a brave move for ABC to broadcast the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Of course it was after May sweeps, after season finales and after all of the cliffhangers had passed. And it came at a time when most of the reality shows were having a lull. Summer usually means major TV downtime because, theoretically, we’re all out frolicking on a beach somewhere or driving to Yosemite.
But there they were, smack in the middle of prime time, up against CSI reruns and game shows. Middle schoolers, in all of their awkward glory, taking to the big stage to show their stuff in front of eight million people. While not exactly American Idol numbers, eight million is a respectable amount, even if it was trounced by CSI which still took much of the take that night, even with a rerun.
The spelling craze started a few years back with the Oscar-nominated documentary, Spellbound, which followed a few tweens as they prepared for and entered the National Spelling Bee. Richard Gere was in Bee Season, also about a speller, and on Broadway last year The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a double Tony Award winner.
But it was the fictional version, Akeelah and the Bee, released this year, that seemed to bring the whole thing to a head and pave the way for the first-ever televised broadcast of the prestigious competition. Akeelah didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, but people were certainly talking about it. And kids were thinking about spelling maybe as a ticket out.
Akeelah represented the Bee as a way for a girl from the hood to find a better way for herself and her community. But let’s face it, education and being a good speller is hardly something most kids yearn for, especially with the lure of being a rap or pop star.
Which is why it was all the more remarkable that a major network would put the Bee out there as perhaps a twist on the reality craze. It is a competition, contestants are eliminated, there is a big winner. Sound familiar? It could be any other reality show were it not for the fact that the spellers aren’t exactly polished and they certainly weren’t picked because they looked good on TV.
The news reported a ratings disaster for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but more remarkable than how many didn’t watch is how many who did. There is a new hero in town and she can spell words like “ursprache.”
On one side, the hopeful contestants. These are sharp and tenacious kids who take to the mic without too much visible nervousness and spell words most of us can’t even pronounce, let alone spell. On the other side, their parents. Cameramen get in tight on the poor nervous parents who watch and grind their teeth as they await their child’s win or loss.
And finally, the judges sit in the middle of the room reading off definitions of words, how they’re used in a sentence, what the alternate spellings are and asking, “Can you repeat that?” The judges could use a little of Idol’s Simon Cowell to spice things up a bit, maybe some humiliating speeches about how they could do so much better if they’d only studied harder. Can’t you just hear him? “I think after that performance you’ll be going home in the next round.”
Oddly enough, the Bee doesn’t leave much time to carve out a favorite in the bunch; they are all spelling geniuses. You end up rooting for all of them. Even more than that, it was one of those rare moments to bow our heads in appreciation of network television.