- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Just how popular is the Scripps National Spelling Bee?
We'll see Thursday night when, for the first time ever, the final rounds are broadcast live in prime time. The exceptional talent of Samir Sudhir Patel, John Louis Tandy Tamplin and others will be shown in all its glory -- in high definition, no less -- as ABC sends an army of middle-school students in front of a microphone into battle against "The Office," "So You Think You Can Dance?" and "CSI."
Things have changed drastically since ESPN first broadcast the final rounds in their entirety back in 1994. Three movies have hit the screen -- the documentary "Spellbound" (2003), "Bee Season" (2005) starring Richard Gere, and "Akeelah and the Bee," a Starbucks-promoted film that has generated more than $17 million in sales nationwide since its debut last month. Then there's the hit Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which won two Tony Awards last year. If that isn't enough, book stores are now stocked with "American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds." And Princess Cruise Lines recently announced plans to complement their ships' staple Bingo games with spelling bees.
So this year's champion is likely to be treated to a lifetime of C-list fame, which isn't bad if you can get it.
Nupur Lala became the last speller standing on the stage in 1999 -- after correctly spelling "logorrhea" – and says her win has become a lifetime conversation piece. Now a senior at the University of Michigan, Lala is approached about her victory nearly everywhere, including the local campus hangouts and the Wolverines' football games.
"Showing the event in prime time allows for the chance for the Bee to become even bigger," said Lala, whose rise to the top was chronicled in the "Spellbound" documentary. "It has become this huge pop-culture phenomenon that has evolved from being this niche event to what it is today."
"ABC's decision to move the Scripps National Spelling Bee to prime time affirms for us how deeply this unique event is engrained in the American psyche," Kenneth W. Lowe, president and chief executive officer for The E. W. Scripps Company, the competition's sponsor since 1941, said in a statement.
It's also might make the Spelling Bee the cheapest form of reality programming ever put on the air. Other than a sturdy stage and a working microphone, there is very little production cost; and the talent will be paid less than $100,000. The winner will collect $42,500 in prizes and scholarships, none of it coming from the broadcasters.
And while some critics don't like the idea of putting the competition in front of more eyeballs, it's hard to find any current or former competitors who object to the ramp-up in coverage.
"Instead of being exploited or cornered by this opportunity, I think most kids are excited," Lala said. "They're thinking, 'I stayed in on Friday night and spelled, and now there's a big payoff.' "
The 13-year-old Tamplin, an eighth grader who is one of two competitors to return for a fifth try at the National Spelling Bee, echoes Lala's sentiment.
"We all studied a lot for this moment," he said. "And now more people will have a chance to see us."
The competition starts on Wednesday. The plan is to weed the 275 spellers who start – that's the most in the 79-year history of the event -- down to fewer than 45 spellers for the beginning of the live television round on ESPN at noon, ET, on Thursday. After three hours on ESPN, it's expected that some 10 to 15 spellers will remain in the competition for the prime-time telecast from 8-10 p.m., ET, on ABC that night.
"People have been fascinated by reality television, even though some of the things people watch and the networks broadcast are morally questionable," said Dr. Joanne Lagatta, who won it all in 1991 by nailing the word "antipyretic." "The Spelling Bee might be a little obscure, but it's a good thing that it's getting this type of attention."
Before this year's competition began, second-year contestant Sean Patrick Carpenter of St. Joseph, Mich., said knowing more people will be watching the event won't really affect him. "I don't feel much pressure anyway," he said. Carpenter, though, was eliminated in Wednesday's early rounds.
In addition to the extra eyeballs the prime-time broadcast might attract, the time of the finals could affect a speller on a roll. Instead of a one-hour lunch break between the beginning and final rounds on the last day of competition, which has been the usual routine until now, the final group of spellers will have to wait five hours before they go live prime time.
Ginny Wu, an eighth grader from Norco, Calif., who is in her second Spelling Bee, already knows how she'll pass the time.
"I'm going to study," Wu said. "You'd be surprised. It can really make a big difference."
Tamplin said he'll cram a little bit, but he noted that he can't possibly study for five hours. His strategy? "If I'm still in it, I'm definitely taking a nap," he said.
The National Spelling Bee, at the simplest level, is just kids spelling words. But if you believe that, then you'll believe that the NFL Draft is just a commissioner announcing names.
Neither event has been void of drama in recent years.
In 1997, after a 23-round, 45-minute final duel against runner-up Prem Trivedi, Rebecca Sealfon screamed out the letters "E-U-O-N-Y-M" while she raised her hands in the air to win the championship. In 2004, Akshay Buddiga fainted after being given the word "alopecoid," fell to the floor, got up and the spelled the word correctly.
Viewers this year could be treated to another command performance by Patel, who returns for his fourth competition. He placed third as a 9-year-old in 2003, and tied for second last year. Patel already is part of Spelling Bee lore, sporting confidence that manifests itself when he tells the judges he's familiar with the word they have given him.
Who knows? If all goes well and ABC is happy with the ratings, perhaps even the Bee's qualifying rounds will be covered in the future in much the way the World Series of Poker is broadcast now long before the final table is determined.
But Lala, the former champion, says there could be a problem brewing for broadcasters with a limited time slot.
"I think all the attention has led to a step up in the quality of spellers," Lala said. "When I won, I think there were about 10 kids who had a chance to win. Now, I think there are about 40 or 50 kids who can take home that trophy."
Before Joanne Lagatta finally won back in the pre-television days, she battled with her last competitor, Maria Mathew, for more than an hour. Those people at ABC may have to pray that the trophy gets hoisted sometime before 10 p.m. on Thursday.
Darren Rovell, a senior writer for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn3.com. He has covered the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the last five years.
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