Spellbound: Why TVNZ's spelling bee needs to improve if it is to return
OPINION: Shambolic, tedium, peculiar.
Not only words our supposedly best Year 9 and 10 spellers faced during last weekend's episode of TVNZ1's Spellbound, but also apt words to describe this hollow and shameful near-parody of America's Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Airing here each May on ESPN, the American celebration of words is compelling viewing, with moments of high drama and comedy (thanks largely to "The Bee's" erudite and deadpan "event pronouncer" Dr Jacques Bailly – the Tim Gunn of the spelling world), as the contestants impress with their ability to spell words you've never heard of.
Treated like any other competition on the sports channel, the coverage features informative voice-overs and offers viewers their own education, as the tweens and teens routinely ask for a word's language of origin, definition, use in a sentence and break them down into their component root words. Onscreen graphics mean you can also follow the speller's progress and wince as they make a mistake, or delight when they get it right.
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Made by Greenstone Productions for TVNZ, Spellbound offers none of that. Instead we get a superfluous Toni Street dishing out platitudes and patronising comments, on a set that looks like a cross-between Hollywood Squares and What Now. Three silent judges sit perched precariously in the middle square, while pronouncer - "the doyen of diction" - Owen Scott's only flourishes are his bowties.
At the start of the episode, Street promised us that we would be "delighted and aghast". She was half right. Pitched in prime-time baby boomer viewing territory early on a Sunday night, that generation were no doubt spluttering in their tea as the teens created new words like "carquet", "debeaux" and "bueroque". Anything with a whiff of non-mainstream English, or basic Maori, seemed to be a struggle – heaven knows what they would have done with US Spelling Bee words like gesellschaft, nunatak, scherenschnitte or stichomythia.
Perhaps they were tense, after all, someone had the bright idea to bring their parents along backstage. They didn't seem to be much help. One mother delighted in telling viewers how she got two days off work to attend, while another Dad said while he might not have known how to spell khaki, he did "know that it didn't start with C", as his daughter had suggested. Adults working on the show should also hang their heads, after delivering the clanger that Mt Hutt College is in Christchurch (which is like saying Waitaki Girls High School is in Dunedin).
However, as much as the show might highlight the same perceived slipping educational standards that a decade ago allowed a US vice-president to try and spell potatoes without an e and a heavyweight boxer to ask for an "o" for awesome, the real problem I have is that Spellbound seems to set the kids up for failure.
In the rush to get through as many words as possible in the 40-odd minute format, they don't seem to have been encouraged to ask questions about the word and its origins. One also wonders whether they could hear very well above the whispering of fellow contestants (and did they play the awful tension-building electronic music in the studio perhaps?). One poor girl decided that "haiku" was actually "tycoon", which must have led to red faces all around. Worse still, she, like all the others who got a word wrong, got no indication where they went wrong – an opportunity for learning and experience lost.
And If that made for excruciating viewing, then the rest of the show wasn't much fun for the viewer either. With the correct spelling of the word only appearing after the contestant's guess, there was no real opportunity to follow along at home, and other than less than "Sharp" comments from the host about their garb or state of nervousness, we never got to know our protagonists.
Street signed off by wishing us "goodnight and good spelling". She must have meant for the future, because Spellbound offered us neither.