Things promise to get ruff Sunday as Animal Planet's "Puppy Bowl IX" goes snout-to-helmet with the Super Bowl for ratings gold.
Last year the show, which pits pound puppies against one another in a dangerously cute game of faux football using chew toys, set records for the basic cable outlet, with 8.7 million total viewers during the 12 hours it aired.
True, that's nowhere near the more than 100 million viewers the Super Bowl tackles each year, but for a day when most television channels throw in the towel and admit defeat, it's pretty good. And for Animal Planet, it's a huge touchdown. Last year's "Puppy Bowl" marked the channel's highest day of Web traffic, with 5.5 million page views and 1.4 million videos streamed.
PHOTOS: Animal Planet's "Puppy Bowl IX"
"The story line is something we work out in the edit," says executive producer Melinda Toporoff of the nearly 90 hours of footage filmed to create the two-hour special. "When you're dealing with subjects that nap one minute and poop the next you have to tease out a plot later."
There are no teams or uniforms in "Puppy Bowl." The puppies are simply placed on a 3-by-6 yard field with a slew of plush chew toys shaped like footballs, ducks and sausages and left alone to play. Eventually a puppy manages to drag a chew toy into an end zone and the referee, an actor named Dan Schachner, declares that a touchdown has been scored.
"It definitely has a cult following and it seems to get bigger and bigger every year," says Toporoff. "We introduced Meep the tweeting bird (@meepthebird) last year and everyone from Snooki to Zooey Deschanel has tweeted about it. I think Zooey tweeted about it based on her own fervor and love for the special."
The tweet in question was posted by Deschanel (@ZooeyDeschanel) on Feb. 6, 2011 at 1:54 p.m. and reads, "I CANNOT wait for Puppy Bowl, I'm rooting for ALL OF THEM!!!!"
But when the players are so unbelievably cute, how can you not want them all to win? (In fact, referees will throw penalty flags for "unnecessary cuteness."
"I can't imagine the casting process," says Ana Bustilloz, the director of communications for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles. "This puppy is not cute enough. No! How can you say no to any puppy?"
In reality the casting is fairly straightforward. Petfinder.com, which helps owners connect with their dream pound pets, does most of it — sending Toporoff and her team "head shots" of the pups standing next to soda cans so they can get a good idea of the animal's size. Puppies are mainly chosen based on their temperament and ability to play well with others.
Bustilloz has taken two different puppies to "Puppy Bowl" from the spcaLA shelter. Last year she brought a 9-week-old Chihuahua-terrier mix named Fumble who ended up being named the game's MVP (Most Valuable Puppy). This year she brought a tiny mutt named Blitz, who she says is a true underdog because of her diminutive size.
"She was so small, now I understand how stage mothers feel," says Bustilloz. "I was worried about her and then I was like, 'Why is the camera not on my dog? Get that camera on my dog!'"
All of the pets featured on the show, which is filmed in a New York studio months in advance of its air date, were up for adoption (most have already found homes). This includes not just 63 puppies, but 21 kitty half-time show performers, nine hedgehog cheerleaders and a half-dozen hamster sports reporters that fly above the miniature stadium set in a blimp.
"We certainly see a spike in Web traffic and that sort of thing," says Bustilloz of the time during and after "Puppy Bowl" airs. "So many people are watching 'Puppy Bowl' and they call us and say, 'I saw Fumble on 'Puppy Bowl' and I want a puppy just like him.'"
Reps from Petfinder.com say that "Puppy Bowl" has had a huge effect on adoptions. Last year, Petfinder.com saw a 22% increase in Web traffic and a 32% increase in search referrals.
This year's additions include a time-warp "Fluff Cam," which slows down the action so that when the puppies shake they look like furry shampoo models. There's also a tiny cool-down tub at the end of the field that complements the fluff cam since the puppies emerging from the water tend to shake dry.
Next year Toporoff hopes to score President Obama's family dog, Bo, as a very special guest.
"Maybe we can get Bo for the 10th anniversary show," says Toporoff of the first dog, a cuddly black Portuguese water dog. "I know he's an incredibly busy dog, but now that he's secured in his home for another four years maybe he can do the coin toss."
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