(Sorry, Lidstrom is going to have to wait. The Spelling Bee only comes around once a year.)
I assume ABC/ESPN was in its dark ages when its relationship with the Scripps National Spelling Bee began. Without most of the four major sports and the company hurting to fill airspace on its variety of networks, a producer accidentally walked into the wrong conference room, saw the strained looks on the awkward kids faces, felt the tension and saw the potential for cheap programming.
For years it was: a cheap way to kill a couple of hours when no one was watching anyway. Then people caught on.
The high stakes, one-missed-word-and-you’re-out format, the ability to watch dreams dashed or realized in an instant and the guarantee of an overtime-like finish makes the spelling bee secretly captivating. The ability to make fun of these kids bound for a socially awkward high school experience while simultaneously marveling at their intellectual prowess makes it downright entertaining.
ABC/ESPN realized this and brought marathon coverage of the bee. In 2006 they split it up into separate showings, with the finals airing in primetime.
Whether the competitors want it or not, the Spelling Bee has gone from kind of goofy sideshow to kind of goofy but legitimate staple on ABC/ESPN’s schedule every year. As the network profits off displaying the dashed hopes these elementary and middle school students in real time, it gives nothing to these competitors.
This year roughly $125,000 in prize money was given out. As far as I can tell ABC/ESPN handed out none of it. Purely objectively they aren’t obligated too. The competitors aren’t wearing ESPN logos, they aren’t profiting off of Frosted Flake logos on the backdrop or strategically placed Coca Cola water cups for the judges.
ESPN probably made little, if anything at all, off of advertising specifically directed towards the Spelling Bee this year. Still, something isn’t right about the current arrangement.
ESPN offered up package after package of these kids, their awkward mannerisms and their lives. It got two hours of programming (not including the semifinals) by offering up nine children’s hopes and dreams, and gave them nothing in return.
The dream wasn’t to be on ESPN. The spellers didn’t sign up for a reality show. Most probably don’t even watch ESPN. All they wanted to do was win the Spelling Bee. Take away the cameras and every participant would have been in the same situation, feeling the same pressure.
Two hundred seventy eight participants made it to the preliminaries. Nine made it to the finals. The winner received 30,000 in cash, a 5,000 scholarship an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica and a $2,500 savings bond. That’s 37,500 in cash, or about a semester’s tuition at whatever Ivy League School the winner is going to end up at. Nine through seventh place received a measly $1,500
ABC/ESPN can’t pitch in a couple thousand more and reap the PR rewards in the process? They can’t leave a kid who spent years studying and beat 269 of the best in the world but got the wrong word at the wrong time with something more than the monetary equivalent of half an encyclopedia set?
Put it towards a college fund if it makes you feel better. Just give them something for all the service they have unwillingly given the network.
Now, the Spelling Bee certainly isn’t the only event getting jobbed by TV networks, but last night showed just how big it had become.
These kids participated in a legitimate event on the sports entertainment schedule. It’s time for them to get compensated for it.