Another year, another desi kid wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a few reports appear in the newspapers, and otherwise the event is mostly forgotten. There are the usual gaggle of desi participants – a third of the semi-finalists had desi origins, and for the fourth year in a row, the winner was an Indian-American – Sukanya Roy.
I watched the questions get tougher and tougher through the final rounds, and soon you had reached a stage where knowing the rules of etymology no longer had any benefit. There were words from Turkish, Arabic and Tagalog, and every world language you could think of. You could not guess the spelling from a Greek or Latin root, you had to Know the word. You could see the clear difference in the quality of participants between the preliminary rounds and the finalists. The finalists were so good that the organizers had to throw tougher and tougher words at them in a desperate attempt to get them to stumble and have the field reduced to one or two.
You wonder how many hours these finalists would have devoted to learning spellings, as compared to the hours those other kids who had aced their Districts and failed in the preliminary rounds. You wonder what the kids get out of all the stupendous hard work they have put in.
Sure, they learn discipline and hard work, perseverance, etymology, an amazing vocabulary, a very good command of English, and the ability to perform under pressure. But all this is common to anyone who gets even to the preliminary rounds. What rewards do those extra-ordinary semi-finalists and finalists get? After all, while the winner gets around $37,500 in cash and bonds, and $2,600 worth of books, and some of the other finalists get attractive prizes, all that most of the participants (including semi-finalists) would get is a small gift card and a chance to visit Washington D.C. The gift card would not even compensate them for their expenses in staying in D.C. for the competition, so it would be meaningless.
The organizers, on the other hand, are probably raking in the profits. Starting from tickets to the event (at $40 per head for 2000 people) to sale of Spelling Bee memorabilia, to the TV rights, not just in the US but elsewhere too. I’m sure the Spelling Bee is telecast in Canada (we did have a Canadian runner up and other Canadian participants) and possibly in the Caribbean. This year, I noticed that ESPN telecast the Spelling Bee semifinals and finals live in India, and I wonder where else they did so – Pakistan? Sri Lanka? Does Sky telecast it in the UK?
You can certainly make a case for increasing the prize money for all participants, given how fast this competition is growing and the profits this show must surely be making.
But what I worry more is not that the participants are not benefiting monetarily, my worry is that the emphasis on the TV ratings may potentially change the nature of the competition. As it is, many of these desi winners are not good at providing soundbytes that the organizers would like. You can see the disappointment in the face of the organizers who try to coax out a few words from the stunned, suddenly shy child. Do the kids jump up in joy, pump their fists, kneel on the stage and kiss the ground, or cry or show any emotion at all? Not really, they just suddenly become speechless, and even look a little stupid. It is bad enough to have robotic answers during the competition, but to continue to remain robotic after winning does not make for good TV.
There are the occasional crowd favorites, like Surjo Bandyopadhyay this year and Samir Patel in previous years, who are showmen, making for great TV. But most of the other kids just stick to an almost robotic manner of behavior – asking the same predictable questions, answering unemotionally. It’s not just the desi kids who do this, but with so many desi kids in the competition, one cannot help but wonder if this is a common attribute among all the desi kids.
I wonder whether, as the competition grows (which would be presumably more internationally as more world TV audiences are drawn in), whether the organizers would not feel more pressure to make the competition more TV friendly. I’m not sure what form this would take, and whether it would somehow confer any subtle advantage on the showman-style kids. But on the whole, I don’t see it as a very good development for the participating kids.
To sum up, I don’t believe the kids are reaping the benefits of the show’s increase in popularity as much as the organizers are. What’s worse is whether they are likely to get adversely affected by its continuing increase in popularity.