Here's an eight-letter word for the fastest-growing form of competition on television: S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G. Fox has green-lighted Celebrity Spelling Bee, a two-hour special featuring celebrities—including as yet unnamed athletes-competing in a traditional bee. "Spelling can be even bigger than poker," says Mike Darnell, Fox's head of reality programming who is responsible for ratings bonanzas such as Celebrity Boxing and Joe Millionaire. "There's great drama, and people can relate because everyone has taken a spelling test." Darnell isn't the only TV exec making a beeline for the genre. Weakest Link producer Phil Gurin is shopping The Great American Spell-Off, a weekly show in which adults compete in a bee and get profiled behind the scenes—sort of a grown-up version of this year's documentary hit Spellbound. Spelling has gone mainstream partly because ESPN has aired the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee finals live since '94 and ratings have steadily increased. Last May's finals drew 656,000 households, and ESPN estimates that nearly 11 million watched some of the coverage.
Five-time boxing champion and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Oscar de la Hoya will debut as an analyst for both the Spanish-language network Telemundo and MSNBC during the 2004 Games. "He's a huge draw," says Jorge Hidalgo, executive vice president of Telemundo sports. "If you break down the popularity of sports among our viewers, it's soccer, soccer, boxing, boxing and everything else." Renowned soccer announcer Andres (Gooooooal!) Cantor will be a Telemundo anchor for its Olympic soccer coverage. And fear not: Cantor will also call the action. Says Hidalgo, "You kidding me? I'd have a riot on my hands if I didn't let Andres do soccer."