LeVar Burton Said Yes Immediately When Asked to Host Scripps National Spelling Bee

A familiar and beloved figure is making a return to television for an upcoming high-profile event featuring young spellers.

Scripps announced actor and former Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton is set to host the next National Spelling Bee.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Burton, best known for his roles in Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, described himself as "an above-average but hardly distinguished speller" coming from a family of educators. He said he immediately said yes when offered the position.

Burton said he wants to use the role as a way to tell audiences about the spellers, who are young students from across the country.

"Helping to tell the stories of these kids, that's something that I know I can bring to the proceedings," he said.

Burton also expressed his respect for 2021 champion Zaila Avant-garde, who became the first African-American winner, as well as the previous streak of students of South Asian descent winning the bee every year since 2008.

"Zaila was a surprise, and a bit of an anomaly," Burton said. "I'm big for rooting for the underdog. As an underdog myself, I really identify."

An October Scripps news release said the national bee will take place on June 2.

"I want to normalize the pursuit of knowledge in this culture. That wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?" Burton said. "Not just making stuff up and calling it a fact. Achievement through knowledge, scholarship, putting in the work to gain the reward."

LeVar Burton, Rose Parade, California
LeVar Burton will host the Scripps National Spelling Bee, giving the competition a celebrity headliner who's also a longtime literacy advocate as Scripps takes over production of the bee telecast. Above, Burton addresses the crowd after being introduced as the Grand Marshal of the 2022 Rose Parade, Tuesday, Oct. 5, in Pasadena, California. Chris Pizzello, File/AP Photo

Burton described the opportunity as one of many that have come his way since his unsuccessful public campaign to become the permanent host of Jeopardy! (He will also serve as grand marshal of the upcoming Rose Parade.) His bid to succeed the late Alex Trebek attracted plenty of goodwill online while the show's producers were roundly criticized for their decision to hire Mike Richards, who stepped down shortly thereafter when his past insensitive comments were revealed.

Burton's hire comes at a time of transition for the bee, which has undergone several major changes since executive director J. Michael Durnil took over early this year. Scripps announced this fall it has ended its 27-year partnership with ESPN, which brought the bee to millions of viewers and promoted it like a major sporting event.

The bee will air next year on the Scripps-owned networks ION and Bounce and will stream online. According to Cincinnati-based Scripps, those networks are each available in nearly 120 million U.S. households.

Burton's exact duties as host are to be determined. Various ESPN hosts served as lead announcer for the bee over the years but were only heard on the telecast and had no interaction with the spellers during the competition. Watching the bee on TV is different by necessity from watching it in person because the TV hosts can share with the audience the correct spelling of a word before it's spelled onstage and analyze its tricky components.

Other familiar faces from the bee will return in their usual roles: pronouncers Jacques Bailly and Brian Sietsema and head judge Mary Brooks. And the bee will return to its usual venue, a convention center outside Washington, after the COVID-19 pandemic led to its cancellation last year and a mostly virtual format this year, with the in-person finals limited to a dozen spellers at an ESPN campus in Florida.

Scripps plans for the bee to be contested entirely in person during the week after Memorial Day, with more than 200 spellers participating — "back as much to normal as possible," Durnil said.

Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2009, which means the current generation of spellers — kids compete through the eighth grade — grew up without Burton celebrating the written word on public television. However, he has gained some younger fans who've discovered his work on Star Trek through streaming.

Burton's name recognition, though, isn't universal.

Told by the AP that Burton would be the host, Chaitra Thummala, the 2021 runner-up who hopes to compete again next year, was hardly star-struck.

"I think it's great. I think it's good to have the bee have some publicity. I think it'll be fun," said Chaitra, a seventh-grader from Frisco, Texas. "I don't know him, I don't know who he is at all, so I can't say much on it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Zaila Avant-garde, spelling bee
LeVar Burton, host of the next Scripps Spelling Bee, cheered on last year's victory of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American winner of the bee. Above, Avant-garde competes in the first round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals in Orlando, Florida on July 8. Photo by Jim Watson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images