LeVar Burton Joins National Spelling Bee as Owner Scripps Hopes for Buzz
Can the venerable Scripps National Spelling Bee take on the look of a Winter Olympics or “American Idol”? Its backers are about to find out.
Organizers of the event, which has kept Americans trying to figure out how to connect the right letters for words ranging from “sanitarium” to “xanthosis” for nearly a century, want to add new elements to the mix that might make the contest look less like something for elementary-school students and more like “America’s Got Talent.”
Actor LeVar Burton, known for his turn as the host of public television’s “Reading Rainbow,” is joining the proceedings. And producers hope to boost “the Bee” with backstage looks at contestants and a set of vignettes that give viewers a peek at how the spelling champions made their way from school competitions to the national stage. It all takes place as Scripps, the longtime owner of the contest, takes the Bee back under its aegis after years of selling the broadcast rights to Disney and ESPN. Going forward, Scripps intends to show the event on the ION broadcast network and the Bounce TV digital-cable outlet, while also making it available on the company’s free streaming venues. Scripps completed its $2.65 billion acquisition of ION in early 2021.
“Our Bee was being seen by fewer and fewer Americans,” says Adam Symson, Scripps’ CEO, in an interview. “We wanted the Bee to continue to flourish with as broad a distribution as possible.” It’s hard to take issue with being on ESPN, but Symson says Scripps had no say over which of the sports-media giant’s venues the Bee was being shown, or when. Nor could Scripps weigh in on talent. In recent years, he says, the spelling bee hasn’t been able to get the widest possible distribution due to various sports telecasts, though he praises the Disney outlet’s stewardship of the event
This year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals will air June 1, at 8 p.m., with the finals being televised on Thursday, June 2.
The Bee has been around since 1925, when the Courier-Journal of Louisville, KY, consolidated a group of local spelling contests. Scripps acquired the rights to the property in in 1941, and it has taken place every year except for 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and between 1943 and 1945, due to World War II.
Scripps treats the Bee as a non-profit business, Symson says, and while it’s giving up a license fee from ESPN, it believes the event will serve as an investment in its own media portfolio. “I’m absolutely convinced this will help the franchise over the long haul,” he says, “It will be the best thing for the Bee and it will be an accelerant for our platform.”
At one time, events like the National Spelling Bee, the Miss America Pageant and the annual Oscars were seen as pieces of programming that networks could “set and forget.” Viewership was all but guaranteed. Such celebrations drew big audiences to one of only a handful of TV networks, and were broadly appealing enough to generate the viewership Madison Avenue demanded of its TV partners. As more people migrate away from traditional TV to streaming, however, gathering a crowd for TV events that require them has become much more difficult.
Media executives are trying to fight back. Some are creating bespoke events aimed mainly at hardcore fans, while others are trying to cobble audiences together with different versions of the same telecast. This year’s Miss America Pageant was streamed on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, for example, rather than being broadcast in traditional TV primetime. Meanwhile, sports networks are testing new “mega-casts” that tailor versions of matchups for different tastes. One gridiron die-hard might enjoy the traditional “Monday Night Football” seen on ESPN, but another might like what has become known as the “ManningCast,” where Peyton and Eli Manning talk to athletes and celebrities while the game plays on the screen.
Scripps executives are convinced that taking the Bee out from behind cable’s paywall cable is essential, with Symson noting “the continued contraction of the pay-TV ecosystem.” He’s inspired by the recent plight of “Peanuts,” the Charles Schulz-created favorite that made a business empire out of characters like Snoopy and Charlie Brown. In 2020, Apple snared the rights to popular animated holiday specials such as “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” and initially said the properties would only be seen on its subscription-based streaming service. “There was an uproar from the public,” he notes. He thinks the Bee is another piece of “Americana” that ought to be as broadly available as possible.
To make a splash with family viewers, Scripps has hired Michael Dempsey, the director behind Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, to manage the on-camera proceedings. The show will have fewer commercial breaks, and Burton will be able to converse with contestants before and after they get up to tackle their challenging words. “In the finals, when kids are dismissed from competition, he will be able to have a real heart-to-heart talk, in depth, with kids, families and teachers,” says David Hudson, head of o original programming for Scripps.
Scripps is also trying to give viewers more insight into the contestants and who they are. Scripps last week started showing a “Road to The Bee,” that discusses the journey of various young spellers, and will fill the finals with pre-taped stories about the competitors. “These kids aren’t just spellers,” says Hudson. “We want to incorporate that into this show.”
There may also be some last-minute surprises. “It’s possible we might get some phone-ins, some Zoom-ins, from rabid fans of the Bee,” says Hudson.
If this new foray goes well, there is hope among Scripps executives hope they can expand programming around it across the calendar. “We really want to be in the 360-degree Bee experience,” he says,
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