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National Spelling Bee finals reach prime time

WASHINGTON — Now that "American Idol" has bowed out for the season, ABC is betting that the show’s formula — nervous civilians performing live — will turn the once-stodgy National Spelling Bee into the latest reality TV phenom.

For the first time in its 79-year history, the bee is going live in prime time with the final rounds tomorrow. Robin Roberts of ‘‘Good Morning America’’ will host the event.

‘‘We’re really excited about this,’’ said Andrea Wong, ABC’s executive vice president for alternative programming. Wong, who brought the British hit ‘‘Dancing With the Stars’’ to a US audience last year, said she’s been eyeing the bee as a network television prospect for years.

‘‘These are amazingly determined kids who have spent hours and hours every day practicing for this one moment of the year,’’ she said. ‘‘They’re all incredibly likable kids that you’re rooting for. These aren’t nerds; they are intellectual athletes.’’

The emotional angst of youngsters sweating in the floodlights as they try to conjure the language root or meaning of a word to divine its correct spelling has already drawn Hollywood’s attention. The 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary ‘‘Spellbound’’ kicked things off, followed by a Broadway musical and this year’s film charmer ‘‘Akeelah and the Bee.’’

The bee has also attracted its share of writers. Myla Goldberg’s 2000 novel ‘‘Bee Season’’ was made into a movie last year, and Rodale Press has just released a nonfiction book by James Maguire called ‘‘American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds.’’ For much of its life, the bee was an acquired taste, the ultimate niche talent contest. Then in 1985, Balu Natarajan, a 13-year-old son of Indian-American parents, beat out all comers by spelling the word ‘‘milieu.’’ He became an overnight sensation, and many first-generation Americans came to see the bee as a passport to acceptance in US culture, encouraging their kids to compete. As a result, the list of competitors is often as much of a spelling challenge as the words.

When ESPN began broadcasting the finals in Washington, D.C., in 1994, the allure of television did the rest, cementing the bee as a cultural rite of passage.

‘‘When ESPN picked it up, they really dressed up the image,’’ Maguire said. ‘‘There’s nothing glamorous about spelling, but there is something glamorous about being on television.’’

This year ABC notched things up even further by asking the bee’s organizers to move the final few hours to 8 p.m. and rolled the dice that it could manage the production woes of handling some 10 to 15 kids juggling words, expectations, and parental pressure. Sponsors were thrilled.

For real-time television, the gambit is not without risk. The bee is an unscripted pyramid. Some 10.5 million students participated in bee competitions in their hometowns this year, but only 275 are being summoned to Washington.

The problem for television is that, like any live sports event, there is no way to predict the ending. After the spellers are winnowed down to the last 10 or 15, bee officials will stop the daytime event and delay what ABC is calling ‘‘the title rounds’’ until 8 p.m. Once the lights dim and the cameras zoom, anything could happen. A lot of kids could fade early. Or two could keep battling off words such as ‘‘logorrhea’’ (excessive wordiness) and ‘‘smaragdine’’ (the color of emeralds) until long past the network’s planned sign off.

As for the audience, Wong is optimistic. ‘‘The ratings are not that important,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re building a franchise, and that will require momentum over time.’’ Take that, Simon Cowell.

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