Am I alone in wishing Anamika Veeramani had screamed, or jumped up in joy, or cried, or shown some emotion after winning the Spelling Bee? She seemed so matter of fact, I was left wondering whether it hadn’t sunk in, or whether she was too shy or reserved to show any emotion. But more than me, I am sure the TV presenters were really disappointed at how calm Anamika was – you see, it would have made for better TV if she had danced around on stage.
Actually, most of the kids I saw at the competition were quiet and reserved. That’s because they were focused on spelling words, not on showing off for the TV coverage. That’s not what the TV presenters want. Erin Andrews was determined to squeeze out every last drop of feel-good human interest; she was desperately hunting for good sound bytes. There’s only so much you can show viewers about finalists’ interests and favorite heroes. If you can’t get people to faint every time, you at least need them to dance or jump or sing.
When the Spelling Bee gets covered on TV, it becomes just another form of entertainment, and the competition itself becomes secondary.
The TV coverage on the Spelling Bee has many advantages – it will inspire a much larger audience to start participating in Spelling Bees and learning to spell words correctly (a much-needed change in a country where most people don’t know the difference between “you’re” and “your”). It will help dispel the dorky image that participants in these contests face. TV coverage brings with it a bigger pot of money, which hopefully will result in more participants getting prizes. And finally, people like me who are really interested in the competition get to watch at least a part of it.
But how much TV is good? It is bad enough when they keep cutting to commercial breaks (as Anamika mentioned) but what happens when TV coverage begins to infringe on the competition itself? Consider what happened today at the Bee :
Concerned that there wouldn’t be enough spellers left to fill the two-hour slot on ABC, organizers stopped the semifinals in the middle of a round Friday afternoon — and declared that the 10 spellers onstage would advance to the prime-time broadcast, including six who didn’t have to spell a word in the interrupted round. Essentially, the alphabetical order of the U.S. states helped determine which spellers got to move on the marquee event.
“I would rather have five finalists, than five who didn’t deserve it,” said Elizabeth, the finalist from Missouri and one of the four spellers who spelled a word correctly before the round was stopped. “I think it was unfair.”
We are talking about kids who have worked really hard for years to be where they are. For some of them, it’s the last shot they have at the prize (or the last time they get to participate in the Bee). It’s almost become a way of life for some of them – starting each year aiming for the National finals. Do we really need to play games with these kids in the name of filling TV time slots?
I am all for more TV coverage, but I think we need to set limits on what organizers can do. If this is the kind of thing that is going to happen every year, I’d rather not have the competition on ABC, or any other channel that has no issues disrupting the competition. I would be just as happy to watch it on ESPN2 or cable or some other channel with less viewership. Or even online (on say ESPN360.com).
Please, ABC, if you think the format of this competition doesn’t fit your prime-time needs, don’t bother airing it next year. I’m sure someone else will do a better job.