This Sunday, millions of Americans will gather around their televisions to watch their favorite athletes compete in a thrilling contest of physical will, fearless playmaking and instinctive grace. A bunch of other people will be watching the Super Bowl.
On February 2nd, Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl telecast will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and Puppy Bowl X is expected to surpass last year's record total of 12.4 million viewers. Without a doubt, the show is the country's most successful annual instance of counter-programming. It's also undeniably adorable. But how did this event, which, fundamentally, is a few hours of puppies running willy-nilly around a faux-football field, come to be? And how did it turn into a cultural phenomenon so big that, this year, First Lady Michelle Obama, along with first pooches Bo and Sunny, hosted a Puppy Bowl "training camp" on the White House's South Lawn?
Mostly on a whim, recalls David Doyle, a former Animal Planet vice president of program development, who was on the production team for the inaugural Puppy Bowl in 2005. "The scheduling group at Animal Planet came up with the mandate that they wanted counter-programming material for the Super Bowl," he says, which is like trying to figure out the best way to make a punch to the head hurt a little less than normal.
During a meeting, a suggestion was made that the best defense against the programming juggernaut would be to "point a camera at puppies" on a football field, in a sort of dog version of the televised burning Yule Log that airs every holiday season. Margo Kent, the executive producer for Puppy Bowl I, remembers that "It was always a joke: How do you counter the Super Bowl? Let's just put a box of puppies up there and call it a day. It's not worth trying to go against the Super Bowl."
The joke quickly became a reality. "The next thing I hear," says Kent, "is we're really putting a box of puppies on the air." And while "box" is a humble description of the small scale arena the network built for its puppies to play in, Kent is accurate about the homespun feel of that first Puppy Bowl. Airing on February 6th, 2005, the telecast, narrated by NFL Films voice and Philadelphia Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas, was filmed in a spartan studio in Silver Spring, Maryland and featured two teams of puppies — selected, as they are today, from area rescue shelters and with help from the American Humane Association — cavorting on a small-scale football field amongst a plethora of chew-toys. A referee threw a flag when a puppy named Riley piddled on the field of play. Max, a Jack Russell terrier, was selected as the MVP. The show drew 5.58 million viewers. A hit was born.
Recalls Kent: "It was one of those moments on the network's side — where everything is always over-calculated — where they took a risk and said, "You know what? It's a funny idea. Let's just do it," By the next year, she says "people I knew were already planning Puppy Bowl parties. We were surprised at how fast it caught on."
And as the show's viewership grew — the viewership for Puppy Bowl IX was greater than that of college football's Cotton Bowl, and just behind that of the NFL Pro Bowl — its producers added more elements: A kitty halftime show, Pepper the Parrot singing the national anthem, bunny, chicken and hedgehog cheerleaders. This year's game (which was filmed in October) took place on a vast soundstage in New York City, where 21 cameras captured the dogs as well as parade of penguins and a halftime show by Internet sensation, Keyboard Cat. Other new elements included an interactive fantasy draft and MVP voting.
"From a production standpoint, it's grown as time as gone by," explains Animal Planet executive producer Melinda Toporoff, who has worked the last six Puppy Bowls. "To keep it fresh we kept adding new elements like hamsters with blimps, and a skybox that gives us an aerial view. We just want to keep giving it fresh legs, so to speak."
While the Puppy Bowl is never likely to challenge the Super Bowl for television supremacy — more than 108 million people watched Super Bowl XLVII last year — it has set the standard for success in counterprogramming, which is no small victory.
"The principle of counterprogramming goes back to the origins of television," shares television historian Tim Brooks. "The general feeling is that if there's a very big event on, you don't expect big ratings, so you do something different that doesn't cost a lot of money." While the annals of counterprogramming are filled with gimmicky flops, there were occasional pre-Puppy Bowl hits. CBS' beloved seventies family show The Waltons, for example, began as a counterprogramming move meant to offset NBC's edgier The Flip Wilson Show.
For Brooks, the key to the Puppy Bowl's increasing prominence "is that it's a straightforward concept that's a goof, but it's actually entertaining. Animal Planet is giving people something that would make the hardest of hearts smile. I wouldn't be surprised if they start programming something like [The Puppy Bowl] opposite election results."
Dan Schachner, who as the "referee" of the Puppy Bowl is the only human to appear on air during the broadcast, notes that it's important to remember that there are, indeed, "people looking for an alternative to the Super Bowl. Most other networks give up instead of trying to compete. We try really had to always give viewers something different."
That's not to underestimate the event's core appeal, says Kent. "There's a genius to the simplicity: Who doesn't like watching puppies play?"
Other networks are even attempting to replicate Animal Planet's achievement. This year, the Hallmark Channel will air a Kitten Bowl, and Nat Geo Wild is doing a Fish Bowl. But even the folks instrumental in creating this cuddly pop culture phenomenon won't be giving Puppy Bowl their fully undivided attention. This is America, after all.
"I'll be watching," admits Doyle with a laugh, "picture-in-picture with the Super Bowl."