Inside the Puppy Bowl, the visionary force behind online cute

NEW YORK

When reporters from the New Yorker, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” “Good Morning America,” the Associated Press and, yes, The Washington Post have all convened upon one event, it must be important. An appearance by the president. A press conference about dignified matters, with plenty of throat-clearing and questions taken at the end. Something worthy of those camera crews schlepping pounds of gear.

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Nope! It’s puppies, 63 of them to be precise — the stars of Animal Planet’s ninth annual Puppy Bowl. Journalists spent two days writing about puppies and taking video of other people taking video of puppies. Come Sunday, many more of them will be tweeting about those puppies. And here those puppies are, being discussed in a five-page Web article and the 80 column inches of paper that several trees died for, as some readers will be sure to remind us. And many of you may be rolling your eyes.

But the rest of you will eat it up, because puppies — these puppies especially — are so very cute. So cute that in the nine years since the Puppy Bowl first graced our screens, adorable has become a television genre, an Internet phenomenon and a cash cow for both. Cute cannot be dismissed.

And thank goodness it wasn’t in 2005, when Silver Spring-based Animal Planet executives green-lighted a crazy idea: to film puppies playing football as counterprogramming to the Super Bowl. It may have sounded like a lark, but they said yes. And now they are reaping the rewards: The Puppy Bowl attracts a larger audience every year, with 2012’s show attracting 8.7 million unique total viewers during the 12-hour marathon. It was the highest day of Web traffic ever for Animalplanet.com, with
5.5 million page views and 1.4 million videos streamed. It also ranked No. 1 for social television in cable last year, and according to AdWeek, ad revenue is up
19 percent
over last year.

And before it did all of that, the Puppy Bowl inspired an entire online ecosystem of cute. It got its start two years before “I Can Has Cheezburger?,” the chronicler of LOLcats, became an Internet brand. Since then, cute Web sites have multiplied. Cute Overload. Zooborns. Reddit’s “Aww” section. Buzzfeed.The Daily Puppy.The Itty Bitty Kitty Committee.Cute Roulette.The Fluffington Post.The Cat Scan. Caturday.Squishfacedogs. Stuff on My Cat. That’s just to name a few, and does not include the genuine animal celebrities, like Boo, the furball of a Pomeranian who has plush toys in his own image and a book, or Maru, the box-loving Japanese cat who has starred in hundreds of YouTube videos.

“People caught on and got smart with the cuteness,” said Puppy Bowl executive producer Melinda Toporoff, who also produces “Dogs 101” and “Cats 101,” two Animal Planet shows that could best be described as “cute porn” for the way cameras linger in slow motion over the most adorable specimens of every breed.

Yes, all this over a bunch of puppies rolling around in a stadium-shaped box.

‘This one’s a biter’

The two-day Puppy Bowl taping begins not with puppies, but with hedgehogs. They’ve been cast as cheerleaders this year, a role previously filled by bunnies and piglets. On a November morning in a Manhattan studio, their adoptive parents gather in the green room to share stories about their quirky obsession with the spiny-but-lovable creatures.

“He climbs into bed, he sleeps with me,” said Ashley Akenson, 36, of Falls Church, who smuggled Henry, her Egyptian long-eared hedgehog onto Amtrak to get him to the Puppy Bowl taping. “If you pet him when he’s not balled up, it’s very much like a hairbrush. If he doesn’t want to poke you, he won’t.”

Elaine Fischer, a hedgehog enthusiast who has traveled with her three pets from Roanoke, boasted about Speedy, who she said was a grand champion of hedgehog shows. (Yes, they have hedgehog shows.)

“He got the most points ever, of any hedgehog,” Fischer said. “He has got a personality that fills the room.” Not only that, he won a gold medal in the Hedgehog Olympics. (Yes, there is a Hedgehog Olympics.) He won first place in the sprints, marathon and obstacle course, she said, but “he didn’t do well in the hurdles.”

Showtime. The hedgehog owners cluster around green-room TV monitors to watch their pets with the anxiousness of stage parents.

“Come on, baby,” one woman whispers.

“I think she’s pretty photogenic,” says another.

On the field, the hedgehogs do not take to their cheerleader outfits, which more closely resemble ballerina costumes with their pink tulle. It’s about six seconds before they wriggle out of them and head to the end zone buck-naked. The critters are proving more difficult than anticipated, and not just because they’ve stripped out of their clothes.

“This one’s a biter,” a volunteer said, pulling one hedgehog off the field. Hedwig quills up. Fischer, his owner, frets that the males will start to fight or mate. “Hedwig’s after the female,” she said.

There is screeching, and as predicted, a skirmish.

“Fight! It’s the white one!” a crew member shouts.

Fischer swoops in. “Did he start it, or did someone else?”

There is a foul on the field. Kleenex are summoned. The 69-person crew breaks for lunch.

Halftime

Twenty-one kittens arrive for the “Kitty Halftime Show,” and by 2 p.m., the room is totally blissed-out on fluff. Volunteers and crew are holding two to three kittens at a time. This is partly out of necessity — some of the kittens are scaling the wire walls of their topless enclosures to make a break for it. But it’s mostly because aww, kittehs , in the language of the cuteblogs.

The kittehs are placed on the set, which is outfitted with a circus-like jungle gym of scratching posts, hidey-holes, blowing tinsel, wagging toys, gyrating toys, rotating toys and a blast of catnip. Despite the performance-enhancing drugs, the cats are subdued.

“Cat fishing ain’t going so hot today, guys,” said one of the 13 volunteers tasked with entertaining the cats with fishing-rod toys. No one’s biting, it seems.

One particularly spunky cat bursts out of a tube in the gymnasium. “Tell your friends how to do that — you’re good!”

Most of the cats are more interested in the camera than the toys, though one black-and-white kitty with a Groucho Marx moustache treats the AstroTurf like a scratching post. For the grand finale, a glittering rain of confetti blows onto the set, bewildering the cats and settling on the backs of the camera staff.

After 45 minutes of filming, the kittens are getting tired.

“They’re so adorable,” coos one volunteer.

Hamsters, Meep and streakers

There have been other attempts at offering counterprogramming during the Super Bowl, the most-watched television event of the year, but none have persevered like Puppy Bowl. Even the Lingerie Bowl, which aired on pay-per-view, was only staged for three Super Bowls (2004 to 2006).

Puppy Bowl has sprouted puppy mania: There are Puppy Bowl parties and Twitter trending topics. Snooki and Zooey Deschanel puppy-tweet as they watch. And this year, naming rights to the Puppy Bowl stadium were sold for the first time, to Geico.

How do you make cute even cuter without being too cute — if there is such a thing as too cute? That’s the challenge for Animal Planet each year.

“It’s hard not to want to keep adding other cute elements to this,” Toporoff said. “It’s more about pulling it back in and figuring out which one are we going to go with. There are just so many cute fuzzy things out there.”

This year’s new cute element, the hedgehogs, are not very fuzzy. The Puppy Bowl has experimented with hamsters operating a blimp camera, and Meep, a cockatiel who “tweets” sideline commentary. This year they’ll also add a postgame hot tub — who can resist shots of puppies shaking off?

The producers have become experts at using technology to evoke awws. The water bowl camera, capturing tiny lapping tongues and the occasional puppy falling in, has become a mainstay. New this year are super-high-speed cameras that create slow-motion shots of puppies running, ears flopping everywhere. They’ve also attached a camera to a hockey stick to catch action close-ups. Some of the dogs mistake the stick for a toy and bite at it, which is probably even cuter.

Once the 90 hours of footage from 15 cameras is pared down and edited together, Animal Planet social media manager Grace Suriel, 29, picks which cute moments will be the most talked-about, so she can tweet them as Meep to build buzz. On game day, she responds to as many fans as possible and retweets their best quips.

Suriel, who has worked for Animal Planet for five years, said she remembers the first year Twitter became a crucial part of the Puppy Bowl strategy. In 2009, the show featured a streaker — a hairless Chinese Crested — that ran across the field.

“ ‘Streaker’ trended right away,” she said, “and that’s when it really hit me — we have arrived in the pop culture world.”

Meep was introduced last year and has about 15,000 followers. Other than the human Super Bowl, of course, Suriel said, the Puppy Bowl was the most-tweeted event that day — 270,000 tweets — and the subject of four trending topics, beating out “The Voice.” Every year, the Puppy Bowl has broken records on Animalplanet.com.

“It sounds silly to even say this out loud, but it’s so hard to break into cute these days,” Suriel said. “There are so many — between Maru and Boo and all these animal celebrities, it’s crazy.”

Cutebloggers and Animal Planet have developed an unspoken symbiotic relationship, where they rely on each other for material and publicity. Buzzfeed, whose wheelhouse is lists like “The 30 Most Important Cats of 2012,” sent two editors and a video producer to this year’s Puppy Bowl taping.

“You can just point your camera in any direction and it’s going to produce a squeal-inducing photo,” said Gavon Laessig, Buzzfeed’s news editor. “We both realize that we are doing each other a favor with this coverage.”

‘The only hard-and-fast rule’

The Internet has eaten cute like kibble ever since the first set of paws hit the Puppy Bowl AstroTurf.

“People take it more seriously than any of us do,” said Dan Schachner, who plays the referee. “I’ve gotten tweets from fans who were like, ‘No, that wasn’t technically a holding call, or a face mask — he didn’t put the paws on that puppy’s snout.’ ”

Of course, the calls and the rules and the playbooks are all a big joke. No matter who you cheer for in the Puppy Bowl, puppies always win.

“If you had to really write it down, the only hard-and-fast rule is that the chew toy needs to be dragged into the end zone,” Schachner said. “That’s it. It doesn’t matter what direction. It doesn’t matter how it’s dragged there. It could even be by accident. That’s a touchdown.”

Still, Schachner takes his role quite seriously. To prepare, he watches YouTube videos of animals playing sports. He comes up with one-liners for new penalties, like “Illegal retriever downfield.” (Sorry, goldens.) He refers to the day’s other game as “human football.”

The biggest challenge of the two days of taping? “To watch where I step,” he said.

Nearly every surface of the studio is covered in absorbent pet pads on Day Two, when the 63 puppies arrive, escorted by volunteers from more than 20 shelters and rescue societies from across the country.

Animal adoption is the Puppy Bowl’s mission, and all dogs and cats on the show are available for adoption, though all but four will have found happy homes by the time of this story’s publication. Some shelters have built relationships with the show and give their dogs football-inspired names. Ana Bustilloz, of the Los Angeles SPCA, brought Blitz, a terrier mix, whom she hoped would follow in the footsteps of Fumble, last year’s Puppy Bowl MVP. “We’re hoping for magic twice,” she said, “but she’s shy.”

Before each animal goes on camera, he or she is given an examination by Nancy Ashley, the on-site veterinarian. They also sit for a portrait for Animal Planet’s Web site. The presentation of each puppy is met with an “aww” in unison from everyone in the room. “This is Copper!” said a volunteer, carrying a dachshund. “Aww, Copper!” replies the entire room, as if on cue.

Then the dogs are carried down to the stadium set, where they get their turn according to size: Big dogs play with other big dogs, like pit bulls and Great Pyrenees, while the toy breeds, like Japanese Chins and Chihuahuas, get their field time together to keep it fair.

When they are let loose with countless stimuli — a dozen toys in all shapes and sizes, new playmates all around and a small brigade of humans with shiny cameras and pockets full of treats, they don’t even know where to begin. Copper licks a camera hidden in a toy. Mickey, a shepherd mix, jumps up to chew the wires on a jib camera. Other puppies try to wriggle through the portholes where the camera lenses poke through a plexiglass wall. Suddenly, Agatha scores a touchdown.

“Congrats, Agatha! Small in stature, large in skill,” Schachner mugs for the cameras.

The entire production is supervised by Sandi Buck, a representative from the Humane Society’s film and television division, who ensures that the dogs, cats and hedgehogs are faring well. When the cats get too hyperactive or the puppies play too rough, she’ll swoop in for a substitution, giving the animals a timeout.

Some will take their own timeout: Exhausted from their first plane ride and a day of playing, many of them tucker out halfway through the shoot and lay down on the field for a nap.

But at some point, when you’re confronted by so much cuteness — two days of squishy faces and wagging tails and bellies to rub — cute becomes banal.

Especially to the woman who has to clean it up. Commit a personal foul in the Puppy Bowl, and the ref has to stop the players from rolling in it.

“I don’t know why, but everyone else refused to do this job,” said Jessi Baden-Campbell, the unlucky line producer for Discovery Studios, as she stepped onto the 10-by-19-foot “field” with cleaning solution in hand. She may be the busiest person in the Puppy Bowl. In minutes her services are needed again.

“We’ve got a puker!” calls out a cameraman.

And again.

“Someone made a touchdown right here!” calls out another, using a euphemism for a moment you probably won’t see on TV.

On Twitter, debates will break out about which player is cutest. There are dachshunds and basset-dachshund mixes that fall asleep on top of each other on the field. There is Elias, a pit bull from Los Angeles, who has a perfect spot over his right eye and big, clumsy paws that he has yet to grow into.

But if you go by Schachner’s officiating, it’s clear which puppies may take the prize for cuteness. He calls a penalty for “excessive cuteness,” on three snuggling morkies (Maltese-Yorkie mixes) that are the most adorable things to have ever lived. They look like canine descendants of Swiffers.

“That’s a 10-yard penalty,” rules Schachner. “You know what? Fifteen-yard penalty. It’s that cute.”

Puppy Bowl IX

airs Feb. 3 from 3 to 5 p.m., and repeats for the rest of the day, on Animal Planet.

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