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Scripps Spelling Bee Is Its Own Kind Of Sport - and Has Its Own Kind of Broadcast on Ion Television

29/05/2024

Scripps Spelling Bee Is Its Own Kind Of Sport - and Has Its Own Kind of Broadcast on Ion Television The 99-year-old competition is now on its own network By Dan Daley, Audio Editor

Wednesday, May 29, 2024 - 11:47 am

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The Scripps Spelling Bee is the Super Bowl for smart kids. Contestants from all over the world compete to be the last kid standing - their ages top out at 15, and they cannot be past the eighth grade by Aug. 31 of the year before the competition - with the correct spelling of some of the English language's most abstruse and recondite words.

This week's broadcast of the four-day event on Scripps-owned Ion Television - its third year there since leaving a nearly 30-year broadcast partnership with ESPN - demonstrates how the event is moving on a path similar to sports on live television and streaming. It even shares many of sports' vendors and technology platforms: Dome Productions mobile unit, Fletcher robo cams, PSSI Global Services remote satellite uplink, LED screens from Fuze Technical Group, lighting by 4Wall Entertainment, live sound by MHA Audio, and comms by East Shore Sound and Blanchard Communications.

The event takes place at its longtime venue at the Washington, DC-adjacent Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, MD.

Scripps' David Hudson: [The Bee] has the feeling and the sense of sports. an Olympics sort of an event.

Asked whether the Spelling Bee is a kind of sports event, Scripps National Networks Head of Original Programming David Hudson, who has served as executive producer of the Bee since Ion took it over, offers a qualified yes, likening it to an Olympics, in which contestants have already established their status and now compete at an elite level.

It's a competition, he points out. I think, as it relates to live television, it has the feeling and the sense of sports. But I think what's important to understand, too, is that the kids are competing against the dictionary and not necessarily against each other. They've already succeeded. They're all winners already. It truly feels like it's an Olympics sort of an event. I can't think, from a competition standpoint, of anything else that's televised that evokes the same emotions as watching sports.

Hudson is joined in what is a nearly year-long planning undertaking for Bee Week by Story Producer Nancy Saslow; Broadcast Analyst Paul Loeffler; Supervising Producer David Bryant; Director Michael Dempsey; and EIC, Production, Bill Urban.

Audio and Video Audio is as crucial to the Spelling Bee as it would be to any live, competitive event - perhaps more so because each word is parsed literally letter by letter. Contestants are heard through a variable-height podium microphone (like the one used at the Academy Awards broadcasts, necessary because of the children's' varied heights), while the judges wear wireless lavs. In one new wrinkle for this year's Bee, Co-Host Julie Grant, accompanied by a separate boom microphone, wades into the roughly 1,000-seat audience, largely comprising parents and other family members, to do live interviews during the show.

One of the most high-stress positions on the show is that of Graphics Manager James Stevenson. Operating a Ross Xpressions system, he's responsible for all the graphics presented, including the words as they're being spelled, their definitions, and everything viewers see in written form on the television screen. He's collaborating with Dev Jaiswal, a 2015 Bee finalist who thus understands the criticality of how words look on screen. He'll color-code the letters of each word as it is spelled - green for correct letters, red for well, you know.

Competitive Numbers The Spelling Bee achieves numbers many sports events would appreciate, in part because Scripps has assembled a big broadcast/streaming stage for it. In 2023, the semifinals and finals drew 9.2 million viewers, an increase of 22% over its 2022 debut on Ion. The 2024 edition of the competition airs on Ion and Bounce TV and is streamed on ION Plus, Bounce XL, Grit Xtra, Laff More, and spellingbee.com from Tuesday, May 28 through the finals, which will air live on ION at 8-10 p.m. Thursday, May 30.

Dev Shah correctly spelled psammophile to win the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Scripps itself has moved forcefully into sports media very recently. Scripps Sports was established in 2022 - the year it took over broadcasting its Spelling Bee from ESPN - with a regular-season package of Friday-night WNBA games on its Ion Television broadcast network, which it acquired in 2020. It has since added a contract with the NWSL and regional games for the Las Vegas Golden Knights and Utah's NHL expansion team. It's looking to diverge from the faltering RSN model, which Scripps President/CEO Adam Symson has declared an old model not set up to move forward.

Hudson, who has supervised live broadcasts for 30 years, including at Turner Networks, acknowledges that there is an alignment between Scripps' sports-media ambitions and the Spelling Bee, in the sense that all are live events and are competitions of one kind or another. However, he adds, the correlation between league sports and the Bee came about separately and organically.

Even so, the links between them are robust. One such link is 15-year-old Louisiana native Zaila Avant-garde, winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee (winning word: Murraya, a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees) and holder of three basketball-related Guinness World Records.

(The Bee hasn't escaped the heightened gambling environment around sports today. Wagers have been placed on its outcomes, with micro betting on things like whether the winning word will be singular or plural.)

Saslow oversees development
LINK: https://www.sportsvideo.org/2024/05/29/scripps-spelling-bee-finds-its-...
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