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.
"I was hooked immediately," Blitz recalls. "I think there's such a natural drama built into the competition. Everyone tries to spell along with these extraordinary kids and, inevitably, fails."
Over the years, there have been many memorable moments. One of the most famous came courtesy of a 13-year-old, home-schooled, Brooklyn, N.Y., girl. Rebecca Sealfon exuberantly screamed out each letter of her winning word "euonym." Forever known as the "Euonym girl," Sealfon was splashed on the cover of the New York Daily News the day after her victory.
The National Spelling Bee was launched in 1925 by The Courier-Journal, the Louisville, Ky., newspaper. The originators of The Bee hoped to stimulate "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."
Obscure Words, Better TV
A quick look at the winning words over the years shows that the competition has become much more fierce and the number of spellers has quadrupled.
For instance, in 1930 only about 10 contestants competed. Today, 273 children -- ranging in age from 9 to 14, who have memorized dictionaries -- descend upon the capital. Back in 1930, Helen Jensen of Des Moines, Iowa, won by spelling "fracas." Last year, Tidmarsh won with "autochthonous" (originating from, or indigenous).
But it's not just competition that keeps the kids coming back.
Mallory Irwinsky, 14, returns this year after losing last year in the second round. And, like most of the other kids who compete, she said she enjoyed meeting the others.
"I set the goal of going to the National Spelling Bee in 2nd or 3rd grade," Irwinsky wrote in an e-mail. "Knowing I had reached my goal was awesome. I also met some wonderful girls from Ohio, Florida and Texas. We toured D.C. together and had so much fun."
Sightseeing, ice cream socials, barbecues and even a talent show are some of the behind-the-scenes activities that these overachieving children enjoy. There are also the prizes to look forward to. In 2004, Tidmarsh took home $12,000 cash, among other prizes. But what he is most appreciative of is the friendships he made.
"It's not just the spelling," Tidmarsh said, of what makes participating in The Bee so much fun. "There's a lot of time for social interaction, and it's nice to meet other kids who are smart and love to spell."
It's an event that is filled with tension, the agony of defeat and the silent satisfaction of victory as well as a few words you have never heard. Misspellings take quite a toll on the fierce, stone-faced competitors in little shoes.
"There is something so amazing about these kids who are as young as 9 years old and they are doing something that the average person can't," Magnus said. "The combination of these amazing kids and their skills and the drama of the event makes for some compelling television."