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Spelling bee makes for prime TV viewing

A-f-f-l-a-t-u-s is a word meaning divine imparting of knowledge or, more generally, inspiration. Two hundred and seventy-five students hope this will describe their experience when the Scripps National Spelling Bee final is aired tonight live on primetime television. At least for one night, television will not be completely filled with mind-numbing nonsense.

Television viewing is one of the oddities that I have never quite understood. Despite seemingly more frenzied lives crammed with Internet usage, cell phones, Blackberries and video games, the average American household manages to tune in the television more than eight hours per day.

So I wonder what they watch. Is it spoiled kids on My Super Sweet 16, political pundits arguing on 24/7 news channels or the vast barrage of lunatic personalities on reality shows?

So call me a geek or nerd, but ABC’s decision to broadcast the National Spelling Bee is something worth tuning in to.

It has its own drama. The contest begins with 10.5 million kids that don’t count on spell check or Google to correct their spelling. They are the epitome of hard work and determination. A quarter of this week’s 275 competitors are returning from past battles with the 470,000 words in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

This competition has intrigue that has found its way into books, Broadway shows, an Oscar-nominated documentary and the recent movie Akeelah & The Bee. This latter spelling bee-themed movie traces the path of an 11-year-old girl from South Los Angeles to the pinnacle of spelling bee competitions.

There are many reasons to be drawn to this competition. Americans love underdogs because we like to think of ourselves as underdogs as well. These spelling bee dynamos show us that perseverance pays off. Just ask last year’s winner, 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap, who finished 47th in 2004.

Admittedly, these National Spelling Bee contestants – ages 9-15 – don’t have the name recognition of professional athletes, rock stars or actors, but they come from communities – they’re homegrown.

Take, for example, Berkley Preparatory School 7th grader Jack Pinnell. He has been studying for months for this week since winning the Scripps Regional Spelling Bee at Hillsborough Community College in February. He has the stereotypical love of reading, beginning with the dictionary at age 4, and will now compete for more than $30,000 in cash and scholarships.

But our community connection to this event is not limited to Jack. Take Lakeland’s 13-year-old Pranali Dalvi. She graduated first in her class and was inspired by watching the entire spelling bee last summer. Bursting the image of the nerdy kid, she says, “I watch TV and I listen to my iPod and I talk to friends, go to the mall.”

Additional stories of winners that went on to become Harvard students, Fulbright scholars, lawyers or doctors are widespread and plenty. But the point is that the “stuff” it takes to be successful in the National Spelling Bee will not only help its participants, but also all of us.

ABC’s courageous move to bring this competition to primetime does a great deal for academics. It shows that intellectual achievement and dedication can be cool and can only help with the education challenges our country faces. Let’s make the finalists captivating for America if only for a week. Their relief when they advance to the next round and their dismay when the bell sounds indicating elimination deserve our attention.

As last year’s 13-year-old winner Kashyap of Poway, California has said, “The spelling bee is the quintessence of reality TV.” That’s q-u-i-n-t-e-s-s-e-n-c-e.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.