When some dogs get up in years, some more cautious owners might try to wean its activity or adjust its diet. But as it enters its 20th year, The Puppy Bowl is arguably more vibrant, popular and meaningful than ever, thank you. And, ironically, it owes its inspiration, and perhaps its legacy, to a fox.
There’s an awful lot being written about this event, given how significant an effort it is to what remains of the linear networks of Yosemite Zas. What was once the exclusive domain of Animal Planet, one of the many Discovery networks introduced in the 90s as cable expanded its lineup via the evolution of digital to offer viewers more and more different options (and incremental revenue for its companies) is now an event that is shared with TBS, MAX and discovery.com, among others. Last year, it delivered more than twice the audience that the first iteration did in 2005, and I defy you to find anything else, even with optimized availabilty, that offers that kind of trajectory anywhere else.
I’m a little amused by how some of those who were asked to recall how it all began seem to forget how these seeds were sown and where the gardeners came from. CRACKED’s Brian Van Hooker authored an oral history retrospective earlier this week that somehow equates this effort to a stagnant piece of Christmas wood:
Beginning with the very first Super Bowl in 1967, the biggest event in football was also one of the biggest events on television. Every year, the big game annihilated the competition, making every other channel a barren wasteland of viewers. And so, the competing networks uniformly surrendered, offering up reruns of Lassie or other old TV shows and not much else.
That all changed, though, in 2005 when Animal Planet decided to take a stab at counterprogramming the Super Bowl by turning a running joke around the office into a reality. “When things got hard, someone would say ‘Let’s just point a camera at a bunch of puppies and call it a day,’” explains Margo Kent, who’d been with Animal Planet since it launched in 1996.
(T)he actual concept — tiny puppies cavorting on a football field — was, like many great ideas, initially suggested in jest, by Animal Planet executives. As Rolling Stone recounted in 2014:
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.”
Sorry, Margo, I’m calling out your revisionist history as ,well, dog crap. Anyone who had spent time around a entity like the FOX of that era knew darn well there was a huge opportunity to find an audience even against the biggest event on TV. ESPN.com’s Ericka N. Goodman-Hughey told a more accurate recounting in 2020 of how the idea to counter the Super Bowl evolved:
Washington led Buffalo 17-0 at the half of Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis. Those tuned in to the CBS broadcast hoped the action would heat up during the “Winter Magic” spectacular. Instead, they got a monotonic introduction from then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and cheesy snowflake graphics. Just a click of a remote away, “In Living Color,” which aired on Sundays, dangled its organic connection to youth culture and hip-hop in front of Super Bowl halftime viewers. And they took the bait. The Keenen Ivory Wayans-created series that ran for five seasons, from 1990 until 1994, captured nearly 28.9 million live viewers (including many who weren’t previously watching the big game), according to Nielsen. The counterprogramming snagged about 11.7% of the 79.5 million average viewers of CBS’ Super Bowl.
And it just so happens the woman who had just taken over the reins of Animal Planet was one Maureen Smith, who had a front-row seat to this as a researcher and trusted ally of then-FOX president Jamie Kellner. Kellner came from the worlds of syndication and station relations, and is a student of research. He knew that minute-by-minute ratings existed and had merit, and he also knew that the FOX audience knew how to use a remote. And the ever-gracious Kellner gave futher credit to his business partner in Goodman-Hughey’s piece:
I give a lot of credit to the marketing department at Pepsi. They posed the idea to me, and it fit perfectly with our brand and theirs. Roger Enrico was the [CEO of Pepsi], and we met on a plane in Dallas to figure out the logistics and how we could all feel safe with a live broadcast that did not have a firm start or end time.
By the time Smith had taken stewardship of a network which spoke to her personal passion, the NFL had already figured out they needed to put on something more compelling at halftime. The year after the ILC event was Michael Jackson’s storied halftime show that spawned that cottage industry of currying younger and less dedicated eyeballs and effectively introduced the ratings concept of in-game cume vs. average minute audience to the equation. Smith wisely determined that if you made this effort available BEFORE the game, against lesser-viewed shoulder programming, there was even more opportunity for incremental audience. And with (appropriately) dogged determination, she found some traction, as she recounted to Van Hooker:
Once we had the basic idea, we had to consider the advertising side. While this idea was inexpensive, we still had to sell advertising. We had an advertising rep in New York, and he bought into it pretty quickly. The planets really all aligned too because, at the same time we were having these discussions, Bissell was launching this new cleaning product called the SpotBot, which was designed for muddy footprints and pet stains. They were looking for a home, and our rep ran it up the flagpole and they loved it. Once we had Bissell, that’s when I said, “We’re doing this for sure.”
And ever since, like any healthy well-bred pup, The Puppy Bowl has grown. Per the AP’s Mark Kennedy:
There are some changes this year to the canine football telecast: Four previous puppy players return to be inducted in the new Puppy Bowl Hall of Fame and the show, which has grown to include armadillos, hedgehogs and chickens, will focus on dogs.
“What we’ve done this year to flip the whole script is because it’s sort of a celebration of the fact that it’s the 20th year,” says “Puppy Bowl” referee Dan Schachner. “We’ve decided to go all in on puppy, making it the “most puppiest ‘Puppy Bowl’ ever.”
The show is really just an excuse to spend time watching adorable, clumsy pups in colorful sweaters play with chew toys, wag their tails furiously and lick the camera. A deeper reason is to encourage animal adoption.
“We always say the same message every year: Adopt, don’t shop,” says Schachner. “There are responsible breeders out there, but it kind of defies logic that somebody who’s searching for a dog would look beyond their local shelter or rescue.”
And may I assure you: Some of the most beautiful and loving humans on Earth have their paws in this world, and they have reaped the rewards of the love of a shelter pet.
“Who doesn’t want to watch dogs play all day long?” asks Laurie Johnson, the director of Florida Little Dog Rescue in St. Cloud, Florida, who has been part of “Puppy Bowl” for a decade. Florida Little Dog Rescue, which like all puppy groups is vetted by Animal Planet, sent seven pup players and two Hall of Fame inductees this year. Johnson, who volunteers her time, says it’s an honor that Animal Planet picks her pups year after year.
Most of the puppies are usually adopted by airtime, since the show is filmed in the fall. But the point is to show that animals just like the ones on the show can be found at any shelter at any time.
Schachner also has some advice for anyone who falls for a particular pup on the broadcast: “That animal is probably likely part of a litter, right? So there’s probably siblings out there that are still up for adoption or their parents — their mom, their dad — is in the shelter looking for a forever home.”
Oh, and please don’t think cat lovers are completely forgotten, either. The halftime show here features a whole bunch of adorable kitties, and they, too, can be adopted. As someone who did that three times, believe me, there are few better feelings a human can experience.
Yes, both the Puppy Bowl and the concept of something else to watch on Super Bowl Sunday has come a long way, especially since the counterprogramming concept seemed to peter out after later, less successful attempts such as MTV’s FEAR FACTOR featuring Playboy Playmates and a Lingerie Football League’s pay-per-view event. But it seems even the Puppy Bowl, now part of a world that champions shows like NAKED AND AFRAID, isn’t immune from such temptation. As ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s Lauren Huff teased:
It was only a matter of time: The Puppy Bowl has officially had its first on-field streaker incident.
An exclusive clip from this year’s Puppy Bowl XX…shows the hilarious moment when a small brown dog interrupts the annual matchup between Team Ruff and Team Fluff sans bandana — a.k.a. in the nude. As the announcer astutely puts it, “Dan the ref has his work cut out for him today.” And indeed Referee Dan Schachner can be seen in the clip chasing the streaker, trying to get him to put on a bandana as he hilariously can be heard saying to the dog (who is pixelated for modesty), “You’re bark naked! This is a family show, come here!”
If that’s the worst thing we have to bitch about after 20 years, I for one can shut up and deal.
Until next time…