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Behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s irresistible Super Bowl counterprogramming

3 February 2012 No Comment

The Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s furry fit of Super Bowl counterprogramming, returns for its eighth year of tail-wagging and terrier touchdowns on Sunday afternoon.

It began as a joke in a network ideas meeting, like some stoner intern’s dream: Dude, what if we, like, just put a camera on a bunch of puppies playing in a field?

Genius!

The Puppy Bowl has become a cuddly Yule Log for Animal Planet—and a highly rated one at that. Last year’s edition, Puppy Bowl VII, drew more than 9.2 million viewers, with 1.7 million tuning in for the mid-afternoon premiere and drawing a 1.2 rating, up more than 50 percent over 2010.

To put that number in perspective, the first Puppy Bowl, in 2005, drew roughly 150,000 viewers for its initial airing.

And like the executives behind Super Bowl, the producers of the Puppy Bowl continue to add bells and whistles to the broadcast: the puppy cam, kiss cam, pre-game tailgate, and the popular Bissell Kitty Halftime Show, introduced during Puppy Bowl II in 2006. New this year: a “piggy pep squad,” a tweeting bird named Meep, a sideline reporter (Jill Rappaport from NBC’s “Today” show), and aerial views provided by the Ice Breakers Mint blimp (piloted by hamsters, of course). The water bowl cam–a staple of the Puppy Bowl since its inception–is so cute, it’s sickening.

“We’ve been trying to take it up a notch every year,” Melinda Toporoff, executive producer of the Puppy Bowl since 2008, told Yahoo News, “while trying to keep the poop off the field.”

Last year, the production moved from a small soundstage in Silver Spring, Md., to a six-camera shoot at a full-on studio in New York. Nearly 100 people work on the Puppy Bowl—from animal wranglers to stage managers to directors and producers, and, of course the referee, Dan Schachner, a commercial and voiceover actor from Oceanside, N.Y., who calls the penalties on the field (“illegal retriever down field,” “excessive cuteness”) and cleans them up, too. (“Intentional grounding” refers to, well, you guessed it.)

Taping of the Puppy Bowl occurs in the fall, something viewers Toporoff said are “flat out shocked” to learn.

This year’s affair was shot over two days in October, with 58 dogs of varying breeds—all of them from shelter and rescue groups, adoptable, and most about 10-weeks-old—rotating in and out of the 19-by-10-foot Animal Planet Stadium in 20-minute shifts, so as to not tire out their paws. Crew members often adopt the puppies during the production, meaning most of the dogs are not available by the time the game airs. And they all “compete” for the coveted MVP: Most Valuable Puppy.

More than 70 hours of footage was whittled down for the two-hour broadcast, which Animal Planet smartly replays in a 12-hour marathon that goes on well after the real Super Bowl ends.

“It’s a behemoth editing job,” Toporoff said.

The “casting” of the Puppy Bowl began way back in July. Rescue groups send in “headshots” of prospective pups (“next to soda cans just so I can get a sense of how big they are”) and the grueling process of picking the starting lineup (brought to you by Pedigree!) begins.

“I try not to say yes to every one,” Toporoff said. “But I’m a sucker.”

Animal Planet would not disclose how much advertising revenue is generated by the Puppy Bowl, but it’s certainly not chopped liver (or ground meat products). Last year’s game drew its highest viewership ever among the demos that marketers cover, including 726,000 25-to-54-year-olds, up 65 percent, according to Nielsen estimates. And while the audience is largely female, Puppy Bowl VII’s male viewership was up 69 percent over the previous iteration.

Like its NFL counterpart, virtually everything about the Puppy Bowl is sponsored, and blue-chip marketers like Subaru and Disney have bought integrated ad spots.

The Puppy Bowl has been a boon to AnimalPlanet.com, too. Puppy Bowl VII generated 4.6 million page views, up 30 percent over 2010. The 400,000 visitors to the Puppy Bowl site on Super Sunday 2011 represented a 47 percent increase over the year before. And the Puppy Bowl has more than 47,000 fans on Facebook.

On Twitter, three Puppy Bowl-related topics were trending on the day of last year’s game, with #PuppyBowl second only to #SuperBowl–which was a Chevy-sponsored tweet.

Even the ref of the Puppy Bowl becomes a media darling. By the time Puppy Bowl VIII airs, Schachner, who’s in his first year, will have done the “Today” show, “CBS This Morning,” Fox News, ESPN’s “SportsNation” and the NASDAQ opening bell.

Schnacher, it’s worth noting, does not own a dog. He has catfish.

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