Outside of the network that carries the NFL's big game, no media outlet gets more mileage out of Super Bowl weekend than Animal Planet with its Puppy Bowl.
The pre-taped special that began as a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the broadcast that is typically the most-watched TV event of the year has evolved into a year-round franchise for the Discovery Communications cabler and a social-media dynamo. As the event marks its 10th anniversary, the production process on Puppy Bowl X is almost as intricate as the effort that goes into the live Super Bowl telecast.
Animal Planet has gone into overdrive this year with enhancements to its Feb. 2 special, most of which are designed to make it more than a one-day event. The new additions this year include the launch of a Fantasy Puppy League venture, an amped-up halftime show starring YouTube sensation Keyboard Cat, online voting for the Bowl's MVP and penguin cheerleaders.
It all adds up to a cute overload that is Animal Planet's single-biggest moment of the year on the pop culture stage -- as well as being incredibly sponsor-friendly. The 2013 edition averaged 2.6 million viewers in Nielsen's L7 measure that incorporates time-shifted viewing within seven days of the premiere telecast.
"Puppy Bowl was a sleepy phenomenon that people were excited about, but we knew we had the germ of an idea," said Rick Holzman, exec VP of programming and strategy for Animal Planet and Science. "Every year since then the project has taken on additional legs -- forgive the pun."
Animal Planet's creation has gained so much traction in the last 10 years, according to execs, that it's no longer an event people flip to during Super Bowl commercials; it's two hours of television that has amassed a fanbase of its own, allowing the net to pump more energy into the production.
This year's special will air six times over the course of 12 hours, starting at 3 p.m. ET, with new content added for each airing.
According to Puppy Bowl exec producer Melinda Toporoff, the more animals onscreen the better. This year's telecast will feature 66 puppies, 30 untrained kittens, five penguins, three trained cats, eight tailgate party dogs, four service dogs and six hamsters. As it has from the start, the show also incorporates an explicit message of promoting pet adoptions for rescue orgs.
The 2014 Puppy Bowl was shot Oct. 2-4 at Chelsea Broadcast Center in Manhattan. The breeds of dogs represented on the set made it a global village: Old English sheep dogs, Italian greyhounds, American Eskimo dogs, Siberian huskies, spaniels and pitbulls.
Toporoff directs a team of 49 Animal Planet staff members and 48 volunteers to wrangle all of the action on the 10-foot by 19-foot gridiron that is dotted with doggie toys to keep the players engaged. The first day of shooting was devoted entirely to kittens and cats, the second exclusively to puppies, and the third to penguins and miscellaneous critters.
The puppies are 12 to 21 weeks old by the time they arrive on set, and this year's competitors have come from 33 different shelter and rescue groups in 18 states and Puerto Rico. Coinciding with the net's pro-adoption message, all of the animals that appear in the Puppy Bowl -- except for the penguins, which were borrowed from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium -- are available for adoption.
As of Jan. 20, all but two puppies have been adopted. All other animals have found homes, according to execs, and usually do by the time Puppy Bowl airs.
Using 10 cameras and five GoPro's to document the action -- including hidden cameras and jibs -- Toporoff says the shooting process entails "lots of potential chaos which is remarkably controlled." Of the more than five dozen puppies, no more than 12 to 15 of them are allowed on the field at once, and waves of players are circulated every 20 minutes.
Players on the bench, so to speak, are allowed to nap or play with the staffers who are assigned to watch each dog for the day. If that sounds like a dream job, that's because it is.
"You can't help yourself, you binge on puppies," said Toporoff, who always has at least one puppy in her sweater or on her lap while in the control room. "We have an exceptionally avid fanbase in our production crew, so there are moments when we don't want to part with them to give them their 15 minutes of fame."
The Puppy Bowl players are untrained dogs, given their age, and that means that there's unavoidably a great deal of pooping on the field. Toporoff said the pups defecate as much as every 20 seconds at times, but it's easy to fix it all in post with careful editing. And she has no interest in working with camera-ready canines.
"The less trained, the better," she said. "That's what makes for adorable television in this case -- if puppies are falling asleep on the field, we love it."
Certain production assistants are assigned the brave task of poop duty. Puppy Bowl referee Dan Schachner will usually call a personal foul on a puppy only once during the game, because Toporoff wants to keep the broadcast relatively clean.
Schachner is the only human face continually attached to Puppy Bowl, and he's just as much a part of the broadcast as the four-legged players. As the one and only ref, his job is to maintain a semblance of control and sportsmanship -- just like the refs in that "other Sunday game."