SMELFUNGUS TIME: There's something that's always going to be satisfying about a National Spelling Bee when the winner is someone for whom we've rooted over the years, where the victory feels not just like one night's triumph but the culmination of years of hard work and frustration paying off. When you get the added narrative satisfaction of overcoming a personal demon (Germanic roots) and an array of joyous championship finalists who are fun to watch, it's even better.
The Bee, however, is also the process of eliminating 280 other fine spellers, so your enjoyment of this week's competition is directly tied to how that was accomplished as well. Actually, wait a second: the Bee doesn't exist for our enjoyment: it exists for the kids who are competing in it, so as I've said before the question of whether these computer-based cutoffs are appropriate is really one for them as competitors more than for us as observers. From this outsider's perspective, it does seem more fair to have evaluations based on 24 (and 24 more) common words rather than the luck of the draw at the microphone, and more compassionate to not have every eliminated speller have to suffer that fate in front of a camera—but that also renders the Bee a test of slightly different skills than the traditional oral-only evaluation.
Still, what might be fair for the first cutoff (from 281 minus two oral rounds to the sub-50 for Thursday) does seem more painful when it comes to artificially cutting down from 18 to 11 for primetime. Assuming for sake of television that there will be a separate primetime competition, would it have been that difficult to calibrate the word list to have an additional round or two to winnow the field from 18 down to 9-12? Would it have been impossible to go into primetime with 12-15 spellers and just make it more difficult from the get-go? (The first primetime round always seems easier than the afternoon rounds which preceded it.) And if they started with 6-9 kids in primetime once every few years, is that the worst thing in the world?
I'm still ambivalent about this. When you look at the individual vocabulary words on which errors helped eliminate four of the seven kids from the finals (ebullient, parsimonious, fractography, and filiferous), yes, those are words which the Bee champion should be able to define in a multiple-choice quiz, and those are kids who accordingly probably wouldn't, and shouldn't, have won this competition. The kids who made it to primetime last night, earned it, and the duration of the final rounds is a testament to the uniform quality of the spellers who made it. From that perspective, it's a fair evaluation, even more fair than a random selection from a list of know-it-or-you-don't words (origin: Basque, proper name, literary character, etc.) ... except that the ability to pull those rabbits out of hats which most amazes and impresses us.
So I don't have an answer to how to better structure the Bee. I'd prefer that it be done with the consideration of putting the spellers' needs first, and the fairest evaluation of and reward for their hard work, and not based on what's best for ESPN's scheduling needs ... but I'm afraid that's not the world in which we live.
added: The NYT on the many ways area Jews spell the championship word.