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Super Bowl counterprogramming hikes cuteness with dogs, kittens, hedgehogs

Puppy Bowl grows in leaps, bounds

by Maura Judkis

The Washington Post

When reporters from The New Yorker, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” “Good Morning America,” The Associated Press and The Washington Post, have all converged 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.

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.

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 American 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 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 websites have only 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 such as Boo, the fur ball 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,” says 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-shape box.

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, Virginia. “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, Virginia, boasted about Speedy, who she said was a grand champion of hedgehog shows (yes, really, 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 says, 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 off their clothes.

“This one’s a biter,” a volunteer says, 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 says.

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,” she asked, “or did someone else?”

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

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.

The kittens are placed on the set, which is outfitted with a circuslike 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,” says 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,” the volunteer says. “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 mustache 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.

There have been other attempts at offering counterprogramming during the Super Bowl, the most-watched television event of the year in America, 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, for the first time, Geico bought the naming rights to the Puppy Bowl stadium.

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,” said Toporoff. “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 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 closeups. 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 are 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 re-tweets their best quips.

Suriel, who has worked for Animal Planet for five years, says 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.”

Last year, the introduction of Meep earned 21,000 followers in one day. Other than the human Super Bowl, of course, Suriel says, 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.

Cutebloggers and Animal Planet have developed an unspoken symbiotic relationship, where they rely on each other for material and publicity. Buzzfeed, whose forte is lists such as “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 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,” says Schachner. “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.)

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 America.

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.”