by Gary Levin
NEW YORK — It's a far cry from the expanse of MetLife Stadium, if not in distance, then in size. In early October, a nondescript building on Manhattan's West Side was the doghouse, for a day, for 60 rescue pups, taking playful turns in a 10- by-19-foot mini-stadium, as a striped-shirted referee towered over them.
The 10th annual Puppy Bowl (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET/PT) is Animal Planet's signature event that basks in the festive glow of the Super Bowl. This year, it welcomes first lady Michelle Obama and her Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Bo, as they help "train" the puppy players in a brief segment on the White House lawn.
But the three-day shoot starts with kittens, the stars of this Bowl's "halftime" show, which includes a kitty parachuting onto the field and another at a keyboard playing Locked Out of Heaven, a Bruno Mars tune that will likely be heard in the Super Bowl halftime show. Day 2 brings puppies from various rescue organizations, 15 at a time, which later found adoptive homes. And the final day involves a more complicated — and chilly — shoot with penguins, this year's cheerleading squad. (Piglets, chickens and hedgehogs have filled the bill in past years.)
The game is filmed with something approaching military precision: 21 cameras capture the action, including one mounted under a glass-bottom bowl (to catch slurping tongues) and several more hidden in dog toys spread with peanut butter. In all, 100 hours of footage is edited into a two-hour show, repeated throughout the night. The shoot is eerily quiet, save for occasional yelping (by dogs) or coaxing (by handlers). A script is written for an announcer later and added to the edited footage. And unlike the Broncos or Seahawks, it's unlikely these pooches know when they score, by carrying a toy into the end zone.
What's the appeal? Check out the views for any number of YouTube pet videos.
"Just the sheer delight of looking at these little fluff balls," says executive producer Melinda Toporoff. "I don't think we take ourselves too seriously. We're all in on the joke. Puppy porn, it's hard to avoid — you fall in love."
On this day, a husky-shepherd mix is nuzzling a Great Pyrenees pup as a dachshund lies in the foreground gnawing on a treat, offered as a bribe by a production assistant trying to get him to face the camera. A black pug waits in the wings.
But there are hiccups. A chihuahua-terrier mix is obstinate, refusing to budge as he's coaxed onto the field. Referee Dan Schachner calls fouls: excessive butt sniffing, illegal use of hounds, taunting. And cameras stop rolling several times as the field is cleaned of "poopage" on the 10-yard line, surely a rarity in the NFL. (Production designer Mike Foerstner says he hand-paints the field's carpet each year.)
Which pup will be named this game's MVP? The criteria are less exacting. "It's the number of touchdowns, first and foremost," Schachner says. "But it has to be the audience favorite," a pup that's "not especially violent (and) respectful to other dogs. We like dogs with story — dogs that start out shy, but then shoot up into the spotlight."
This isn't just playtime for Animal Planet. It's big business, with advertisers — vacuums, cars, insurance and dog food, of course — woven into the action.
"As the Super Bowl is to network TV, the Puppy Bowl is to Animal Planet," says Marjorie Kaplan, the network's president, as it's evolved into a major, brand-defining event with a huge social-media footprint. Ratings have grown each year (last year's drew an average of 2.6 million viewers for its first telecast, with a cumulative total of more than 12 million when all-day repeats are factored in).
"It's amazing, when you think of it, of its humble beginnings as our version of the yule log," Kaplan says. So amazing that this year has brought several new rivals: Hallmark Channel is introducing a Kitten Bowl (noon ET/PT), hosted by Beth Stern (wife of Howard); Nat Geo Wild promises a Fish Bowl (6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT); and upstart Destination America plans a Toilet Bowl (noon ET/PT), a repeat marathon of its bathroom-renovation series King of Thrones.
Kaplan says she's not threatened by the new copycats. "You've got to be kitten us," she says. "We've been around a long time. Ours is fun at a whole other level."