Too much TV kills the Spelling Bee?

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.

Anamika Veeramani

Anamika Veeramani (Pic courtesy AP)

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.”

More here.

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

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.



7 thoughts on “Too much TV kills the Spelling Bee?

  1. Interesting article….now media gets into the act of looking for sound bytes for an event in which the participants under the age of 18…. This is a deadly mix.

    • This is just a continuation of the trend of trying to have as many kid-oriented TV shows as possible. (No doubt because teens and pre-teens are a huge market and have very loyal viewership).

      The legal eagles have also made sure that, whether it’s Hannah Montana or Kate Gosselin and her 8 kids, somehow kids doing shows doesn’t attract child labor laws.

  2. I am keen to know if there is a longitudinal anthropological study of how these kids fare later in life. And if their being able to spell words they will never use in their lives has made a positive difference.

    • That would be very interesting. I would tend to think that the discipline of studying they have acquired should stand them in good stead when it comes to preparation for SAT, or in getting through grad school. But I wonder how much of it comes from a certain family culture – I’m guessing the same parents who steered them towards the Bee will also steer them towards whatever field the child (or parent) is inclined to pursue.

      • Lekhni: I would like to believe that this Bee business improves their lives. However recently I saw a painful documentary on BBC or some such PSB channel here chronicling the lives of kids who were recognised and celebrated as maths geniuses very early on. Many did go to University at a young age (not unlike some 12 or 14 year old who is headed to IIT this year in India) but almost every one of them suffered breakdowns, social isolation and a prolonged life of misery. Being a “gifted” child is rarely the unmitigated blessing it appears to be.. (also see Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child).

        Parents who push their kids into these contests are probably more often than not sublimating their own ambitions :-/ Hardly fair. “Steer” is a very kind word.

  3. For one winner there are about 300 losers in a spelling bee. All may be equally gifted with enormous memory and skills however only one lucky one gets to win.
    It would be more interesting to study what becomes of the losers, do they fare better or worse in life after the bee? I don’t believe any of the spelling bee winners has done anything extraordinary in their lives after the bee. Most have come doctors, academicians etc none too extraordinary or better than one who did not even participate in the bee. Most would have forgotten the words they studied very quickly after the bee. Obviously one can’t make a career of spelling after winning unlike a chess or golf player or even a beauty queen who makes it his/her career after winning a significant tournament/contest.
    So it is really for that one brief moment of fame and glory that these kids work that hard. It must be frustrating for those that could not make it on stage. Wonder if this bee business harms them in any way.

  4. They all do that.

    I remember the coverage of the US open final last year, where federer lost to Del Potro. The interviewer Dick Enberg actually had the gall to tell Del Potro that they were out of time when the poor guy was trying to say something in Spanish. And Federer was earlier given all the time in the world to complete what he had to say!

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