"I think we're ready for prime time and I think America is ready for spelling bees in prime time, too," Paige Kimble, the bee's director and its 1981 national champion, said in an interview Tuesday.
"We like to think of ourselves as the original reality television programming."
Previously, the entire second day of spelling aired on ESPN. Under the new arrangement, the bee's early final rounds will be broadcast by the sports network in the afternoon, with ABC showing the process-of-elimination championship rounds to a larger viewing audience in prime time.
Imagine spelling "appoggiatura," last year's championship word meaning melodic tone. Then imagine trying to spell it while knowing that millions of people across the country are watching.
Kimble said viewers "will try to test themselves to see if they can do as well as the children on television."
Spelling bees are gaining in popularity, thanks to the ESPN broadcasts that began in 1994 and their starring role in movies, books and a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Kimble said.
On Friday, "Akeelah and the Bee," a movie about a Los Angeles girl who overcomes adversity to win the national spelling bee, opened nationwide, taking eighth place at the weekend box office.
That film follows last year's "Bee Season," about a man focused on his daughter's quest to become a spelling bee champ. It was based on the best-selling novel by Myla Goldberg.
Also last year, the Broadway musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," won two Tony awards. And the 2002 documentary "Spellbound" followed eight teenagers during their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee.
ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said the bee really is a sport, though without the physical contact. The pint-sized spellers endure rigorous practices and training; some even have coaches.
"It's captivating, just sitting down there and watching these kids spelling words you've never heard before," he said.
Alan Mole, a member of the board of the American Literacy Council, which wants to change English spelling by dropping silent letters, for example, was lukewarm about a network broadcast.
"I suppose it's a good thing that the whole issue of spelling gets more publicity," he said in an interview. "The major criticism of the bee is it celebrates rote learning whereas children should be learning to think."
About 275 spellers, ranging in age from 9 to 15 and about evenly split between boys and girls, will compete for the national title and more than $30,000 in cash, bonds and scholarships later this month.
They qualified by winning locally sponsored spelling bees in their hometowns across the United States as well as American Samoa, the Bahamas, Canada, Europe, Guam, Jamaica, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Louisville Courier-Journal started the event with nine contestants in 1925. The E.W. Scripps Co., a media conglomerate, assumed sponsorship in 1941.
The first day of the bee, held May 31-June 1 in Washington, will not be televised.