It's Time to Crown Another Spelling Bee Champion
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Forty-six students from around the country compete tonight, here in Washington, in the final round of the National Spelling Bee.
It's a test of skills. A test of nerve. Not to mention a test of brains. And for the first time the event will be broadcast live, in primetime, on network television.
One person who knows a few things about the drama of the final round is Paige Kimble. She's a former champion who is now Director of the National Spelling Bee. And she's on the line, good morning.
Ms. PAIGE KIMBLE (Director, National Spelling Bee): Good morning.
INSKEEP: I should mention that 25 years ago - am I allowed to say how many years ago? You stood at the microphone…
Ms. KIMBLE: You certainly are.
INSKEEP: …thank you, and correctly spelled the word, sarcophagus.
Ms. KIMBLE: That's correct, yes.
INSKEEP: Do you think you could go up against the finalist today?
Ms. KIMBLE: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I'm retired. I like to tell people, these children are much more competitive than the group of spellers that I competed with 25 years ago, and that's a testament to the growth of the program and to this generation, I think.
INSKEEP: What do you think has changed, that makes this worthy of primetime television?
Ms. KIMBLE: Well, I think that we've always felt that the Bee has been a great story, one of dedication and sacrifice on the part of children and their families. I think the difference has been that the Bee's profile in the media has risen significantly, first as a result of our being broadcast on ESPN, then the documentary Spell Down, and most recently the movies. So now, more and more people are familiar with these children and their incredible stories.
INSKEEP: There was even a Broadway play, wasn't there?
Ms. KIMBLE: Yes, there is. A very funny one.
INSKEEP: On and on. Now, as far as the way the competition will go tonight, is there going to be a lot more televised razzmatazz? Is the stage setting a lot more dramatic? Is this more like a game show than it was?
Ms. KIMBLE: Well, we had - well, no, not at all. That's something that we're careful to avoid, simple because we feel that our strength is in our reality. There's nothing scripted or contrived about the Bee, nor will there be, now that we're going into primetime.
The only difference is, is that you will see some features on these children. You'll get to be invited into their homes and see their hobbies and their interests, and learn a little bit more about them.
INSKEEP: When the students misspell a word, will they be told you're fired?
Ms. KIMBLE: Absolutely not. We are sticklers for tradition, and they will hear the bell.
INSKEEP: Okay. Now, are you seeing a different kind of competitor, or a different level of competitiveness, as the amount of attention has increased?
Ms. KIMBLE: Yes, we are. We have seen, in the past five or six years, a steady, year by year, increase in the competitive level of the program. It's such that it's - the competitive level has reached a boiling point, we think - and for that reason, we would not at all be surprised to see co-champions, which is something that we have not declared since 1962.
INSKEEP: What happens when you get co-champions? How does that happen?
Ms. KIMBLE: Well, we have a rule that states that when we get down to only two spellers we are down to the final 25 words in the competition. And if a champion doesn't emerge after those 25 words, we will declare co-champions.
INSKEEP: Um, how do you spell sarcophagus?
Ms. KIMBLE: S-A-R-C-O-P-H-A-G-U-S.
INSKEEP: Paige Kimble, thanks very much.
Ms. KIMBLE: You're welcome, thank you.
INSKEEP: Former spelling champion, Paige Kimble is director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.