The Year of No Cats

If you were looking for the Kitten Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday as I was, you may have been as distressed as I was to learn that the Hallmark Channel had discontinued it, choosing human love for its Valentine’s Day movie marathon over pet love.  Yesterday’s news that its former CEO Bill Abbott, now heading up its fledgling rival GAC,was going to carry it on that network effective next year was somewhat comforting and definitely not surprising.  You might say it was a pet project of his?

I love pets.  Some of the happiest memories of my most recent marriage involved the far deeper and reciprocal love I received from my cats than, let’s say, anyone else that happened to live in our house.  Based on a cursory glance at my social media scroll almost everyone I know who posts typically does homages to their pets when they do something cute or, sadly more frequently, when they head to the Rainbow Bridge.

I’m clearly not alone with these passions.  Indeed, pet ownership is a more than $70B business in the U.S., and statistically is dominated by many of the most advertiser-desirable and content-friendly households in America.  According to an analysis from the Pet Business Professor based on data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics in the middle of the last decade, roughly two-thirds of that total spend was concentrated among the top 10 age/income groups; half of that total among households earning more than $100,000.Nearly five in six households with pets own their own homes, and the peak spending cluster occurs among $100K+households headed by 45-54 year olds with kids.  In other words, in the immortal words of Kenny Bania, “that’s gold, Jerry!  Gold!!!”

So when one Maureen Smith, avowed pet lover, took over the reins of Animal Planet in 2004, she was as much in her element as I was when I was at Game Show Network, that old “Dracula in the Bloodbank” analogy more akin to “the pet mommy buying the pet store”, I suppose.  Maureen began her career as my intern a lifetime earlier, learning the nuances of ratings and storytelling from a very young version of moi, with computers barely more sophisticated than abaci on extremely little sleep following sorority rush parties.  Despite those handicaps, she took those skills to ascend to the presidency of two cable networks, and when she got to AP she happened to find business opportunity that converged with her personal passions and the business landscape.

That year, the Super Bowl halftime show was marred by the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” of Janet Jackson during her performance, resulting in fines and a lot of bad press for CBS.  It also happened to occur in a year when Nielsen had recently introduced more granular data that allowed advertisers to target specific minutes that included ads as well as get a separate demographic profile of the viewing that occurred during it.  While fewer viewers tend to watch halftime shows that the game itself (particularly during close games where viewership peaks in the fourth quarter), the profile of those viewers tended to be different and more opportunistic.  And because fewer viewers were watching the game, it generally meant they were watching something else.Comedy Central had had some success with shortened South Park episodes in recent years, targeting a younger, male audience.   So why not something for family-centered households to turn to who, perhaps, may not want to chance seeing a bare nipple again?

So the Puppy Bowl was born.  It was successful.  Eventually it turned into a separate show encompassing the pre-game window, and eventually evolved into a “game” of its own, frequently carried on other networks within the Discovery family simultaneously.   And once it evolved into a competitive format complete with playing field it added a halftime show, naturally featuring cats.  And, just as naturally, an opportunity for Hallmark to tap into a natural spin-off giving cats their own showcase.  It didn’t hurt that Beth Stern, AKA Mrs. Howard Stern, is as passionate about pet adoption and advocacy as is Maureen.  It also didn’t hurt she is the spokesperson for the North Shore Animal League on Long Island.  An awful lot of ad execs live in that area, and quite a number of them are in that 45-54 $100K+ ($1M+) with kids demo.  Abbott, whose background was in sales, seized upon the opportunity to give Hallmark a franchise.

Current Hallmark management is apparently less passionate about non-human love.Their tacit statement when asked about the Kitten Bowl was “we currently do not have any animal-related programming under consideration”.  Since I have several friends who produce movies for the channel, I can’t deny the validity of their decision.  They have a franchise with romantic movies and there are still more households just with women than women with pers.  But on behalf of pet lovers everywhere, I kinda wish they had been a bit less callous about it.

So I’ll look forward to the return of the Kitten Bowl, and we’ll celebrate the Puppy Bowl that begat it, and those of us who have pets to adore us at a time when human contact is so frowned upon will hopefully have had the chance to have done so will have had that opportunity yesterday.  I wasn’t one of them.  Where I live currently no pets are allowed.  Where I used to live the most intimate living creature under our roof was my beautiful roommate’s friend’s Yorkie.   That Yorkie stayed with her a lot as her friend took three and four-day shifts treating COVID patients nonstop, and as a former therapy dog owner who had lost her prized springer spaniel a few years earlier she had her own pet void.  When she offered the chance for me to get extra steps in on my road to health, I seized upon that opportunity as eagerly as that Yorkie did the chew toy she loved to play with with me.  As anyone with a Yorkie knows, they walk you.I lost a lot of weight, my beautiful roommate was free to pursue her business, and I got the chance to do something right by her.  Every now and then, she’d be so grateful she’d offer up a hug as a thank you to me.  My God, I miss her hugs.

I look forward to visiting an even more beautiful friend this weekend.  She’s a cat lover.Not a conversation goes by where one of her cats doesn’t nuzzle up to her and the phone and say hi.  It’s one of the sweetest moments of my otherwise isolated days.  I haven’t yet met the majority of her brood, and incredible as this may sound I’m looking forward to seeing them as much as her.  While my friend and I will hopefully have some alone time, I’m eagerly looking forward to feeding her cats and even cleaning their litter boxes.  It’ll help her out, it’s therapeutic for me and pets tend to be very thankful to anyone who literally cleans up after them.  It won’t be the highlight of my stay I hope.  But it will be welcome relief from an especially trying time for me.

So if you happen to see me anywhere, if your pet is anywhere near by, please feel free to let them sniff me.  And thanks, Bill, Beth and Maureen, for providing them a chance to be loved by millions like me.  We may not have a lot in common these days.  But at least we can compare notes on animals we love.

Until next time…

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