Television: Why We Love Spelling Bees

A time will come when May's most anticipated competition isn't the NBA playoffs, the Kentucky Derby or the American Idol finale. Instead, we'll be swept up in spelling-bee mania. Our favorite students' names will be written on brackets for the office betting pool. There will be elevator conversations about whether too many of this year's words are derived from Greek. Morally compromised talent scouts will idle outside farmhouses, waiting for home-schoolers to come out to fetch the mail. (Story continued below...)

Unfathomable? Perhaps. But the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will crown its 82nd champion this month, has dramatically upgraded its cachet: for the third year, the final round will be broadcast in prime time on ABC. There are plenty of compelling quasi sports on television—logrolling, cheerleading, hot-dog devouring—but the spelling bee is the only one to consistently break out of the ESPN2 ghetto and into prime time.

Much of the prestige bump is attributable to Spellbound, the 2002 documentary that followed contestants from the 72nd bee as they negotiated such linguistic land mines as "palimpsest," "heleoplankton" and "akropodion." The Oscar-nominated film, with its deft construction and memorable characters, showed how the inherent suspense of the spelling bee surpasses that of most sports. When an athlete attempts a right hook, a putt or a volley, we all know almost immediately whether it was a success. When a bee competitor spells, there's that marathon moment when we wait to hear either a judge confirm the spelling, or the Eliminating Chime of Doom. And there are no do-overs: once a single letter slips past a speller's lips, his (or her) fate is sealed. Spelling bees could hardly be more tense if the contestants stood on a trapdoor.

That built-in drama is why fiction has found as much to mine in them as non-fiction: the films Bee Season and Akeelah and the Bee from 2005 and 2006, respectively, and the 2005 Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (in which one boy spelled each word on the ground with his foot before daring to utter it aloud). Though for sheer laughs, none of them could touch the Onion video called Special Boy With Freakishly Large Brain Wins Spelling Bee. The title of that Onion clip is a perfect distillation of why the spelling bee fascinates us still. Besides the pure, harrowing competition, we're watching grade-school kids perform a feat that we should be able to do ourselves, but can't. Even if you're not a parent, you get to experience the perverse joy of feeling proud and useless at the same time. Not to mention old yet au courant: spelling bees are, blessedly, one of the few childhood rituals that have been left untouched by the transforming zap of technology. You might even say that the desire to watch a spelling bee is hard-wired into our DNA. I'd spell that out if I knew how.