"These aren't nerds, they are intellectual athletes. They're all incredibly likable kids that you're rooting for."
So spoke ABC's executive vice president for alternative programming, Andrea Wong, on the network's decision to air the finals of the 79th Scripps National Spelling Bee -- in prime time. The kids received the "American Idol" treatment, with hair and makeup handled by professional stylists. The show included interviews with the contestants, reaction shots of parents and background pieces on some of the finalists. How soon before contestants show up with their own agents and publicists? How long before one of them drops out of the eighth grade to "turn pro"?
Seriously, while the spelling bee enjoyed less than eye-popping ratings -- tying for third place -- the broadcast rose steadily in the ratings as the evening went on. By the last half-hour, more than 9.1 million viewers were tuned in. Pretty impressive.
Each year, the spelling bee grows in popularity. A documentary released in 2002, "Spellbound," did well at the box office. Also, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett recently starred in a film called "Akeelah and the Bee," about an inner-city girl who enters and wins the National Spelling Bee.
The National Spelling Bee, despite its name, actually accepts entrants from any country. The 1998 winner, Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica, became the first non-American to win. The current director of the bee, Paige Kimball (also the 1981 spelling bee national champion), spoke of the bee's ethnic diversity: "We've had somewhat of a streak of children of south Asian heritage winning. The bee is important to individuals of that ethnicity. I think that's clear. They have their own parallel program through an organization called the North South Foundation. So many of these children of Indian heritage also participate in that program, too."
This year's national competition began with 275 kids. They ranged in age from one 9-year-old to two 15-year-olds in fourth to eighth grade. There were 139 (50.5 percent) boys, and 136 (49.5 percent) girls.