WASHINGTON – The winner of the first national spelling bee on prime-time network television didn't display any made-for-reality-TV theatrics. She didn't write imaginary letters in the air, scream her letters into the microphone or punch her fist when she got a word right.
No, all 13-year-old Katharine Close did was spell big words with a nod of the head and her hands in her pockets, her left hand clutching an unseen pendant labeled "Angel in My Pocket."
"It was given to me by a family in my town," said the eighth-grader from H.W. Mountz School in Spring Lake, N.J. "And I always put it in my pocket during spelling bees. I think it brings good luck, for some reason."
Katharine's modest but disarming smile turned into a gasp of joy Thursday when she aced "ursprache" -- which means a parent language -- to claim the Scripps National Spelling Bee title. She is the first girl to take the top prize in seven years.
"I couldn't believe it. I knew I knew how to spell the word and I was just in shock," said Katharine, who won more than $42,000 in cash and prizes. "I couldn't believe I would win."
Katharine, who has studied words an hour or two each day for years, acknowledged that luck played a part. She had studied "ursprache" but didn't know the words that eliminated the third- and fourth-place finishers.
"I was relieved I didn't get those," Katharine said Friday on CBS' "The Early Show."
The ratings will determine whether Katharine's winning performance was worth two hours of prime-time programming on ABC, but there was little doubt that on a day when she was champion, TV ruled the show.
ESPN has broadcast the second day of the bee in the afternoon since 1994, but the contest's growing popularity prompted the prime-time move that would yield a larger viewing audience at the expense of the flow of the competition. There were interminable delays for commercials and up-close-and-personal profiles of the contestants, piling on the boredom for some -- as evidenced by on-stage yawns -- and the anxiety for others.
"You're about to go up to spell and you have to wait about four minutes," Katharine said. "It's kind of nerve-racking."
Sometimes there were as few as two words spelled between commercial breaks. "Again, more bad news," bee director Paige Kimble said as she announced yet another stoppage, eliciting moans from the audience.
Even one of the most charming moments of the evening -- when the finalists spontaneously gathered in a huddle and chanted "One-Two-Three-Spell!" -- had to be repeated for the TV cameras.
"It does make the spelling bee a bit more show biz," said James Maguire, author of "American Bee, The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds."
"I realize it's a bit more stage-managed than before," Maguire said. "We're living in a TV age. The spelling bee has been shaped by TV more than ever before."
At least the drama was compelling. Katharine and runner-up Finola Mei Hwa Hackett, a 14-year-old Canadian, were the last two standing for seven rounds, both confidently spelling words such as "maieutic," "poiesis" and "tmesis."
Finally, Finola, from Edmonton, Alberta, stumbled on the intriguing word "weltschmerz," which essentially means a kind of sentimental pessimism.
Third-place went to Saryn Hooks, a 14-year-old from West Alexander Middle School in Taylorsville, N.C., who was disqualified earlier in the evening, then returned to competition after the judges corrected their mistake. Saryn eventually fumbled on "icteritious," an adjective describing a jaundiced color.
Katharine was appearing in the bee for the fifth time, having tied for seventh-place last year. She studied by typing lists of words on her computer and hopes someday to be a journalist.
Asked what she'll remember most about the bee, she said: "Probably just hearing 'ursprache."'
The bee is enjoying popularity unrivaled in its 79-year history. "Akeelah and the Bee," a movie about a Los Angeles girl who overcomes adversity to win the national bee, opened nationwide in late April.
That followed 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.
The Louisville Courier-Journal started the bee in 1925. The E.W. Scripps Co., a media conglomerate, assumed sponsorship in 1941.