The Year of the Bee

For two days, children in khakis and golf shirts will stand on a stage in front of a microphone, wince, fidget, whine, giggle and spell an obscure word -- and keep millions of us riveted.

It's time for the annual 78th Annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee -- fascinating television for the inner geek in us all. ESPN will air the final rounds of the competition today and Thursday, as it has for the past 10 years. Coverage of The Bee, which has made its foray into cult status by now, will also air on ESPN in endless reruns.

"It's competition at its finest," explained Burke Magnus, vice president and general manager of ESPN U. Magnus was one of the original producers who decided to air the National Spelling Bee back in 1995. He has since moved on to ESPN U, a new division at ESPN, but continues to produce The Bee.

"I still do the spelling bee because I love it so much," Magnus said. "I don't want to give it up."

In many ways, this is the year of The Bee. The 2002 independent movie "Spellbound," which followed eight spellers competing for the prize and garnered an Oscar nomination for best documentary, is more popular than ever on DVD.

Two more movies focused on The Bee are slated to be released this year. Also, an off-Broadway musical called "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" moved to Broadway and has been nominated for six Tony awards.

"Almost nothing we put on ESPN generates this much watercooler conversation," Magnus said. "It's something you watch and you don't know what to expect every year. It's just amazing to see."

The first movie, "Bee Season" is based on the novel by Myla Goldberg, and stars Richard Gere. The other, titled "Akeelah and the Bee," stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne and tells the story of an inner-city girl's journey to the national bee.

The movie also features George Hornedo, 14, a speller who lost out last year on the word totipotency (the ability of a cell to generate unlike cells and form a new individual or part). He placed 71st in the competition. He is heading back to Washington D.C., to compete again this year and is considered to be one of the top contenders.

"I love the competition part," Hornedo said. "It's the most suspenseful, nerve-wracking part and I love it."

Auditorium Gasps, Child Faints

And it's no cakewalk on that auditorium stage in those metal chairs. Last year, 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga rallied after becoming lightheaded and collapsing on stage. The audience's gasps were heard on the live broadcast. In the end, Akshay was defeated by 14-year-old David Tidmarsh, who won with the word "autochthonous."

"Kids are kids and so in many respects things don't change that much," said Paige Kimble, the director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee as well as the winner in 1981. "But the number of kids who are fiercely competitive at the highest levels of this event is staggering now. And it's really become a part of American pop culture now with the ESPN telecast and recent movies, especially 'Spellbound.' "

The idea to make "Spellbound" occurred to Jeff Blitz in May 1997 when he saw the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee on ESPN. Although The Bee is televised annually, Blitz, a graduate student in film production at USC, was watching for the first time and was -- literally -- spellbound.

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