Super Bowl counterprogramming has a short and uninspiring history. Some networks resort to old Seinfelds, while others air forgotten documentaries. Animal Planet inadvertently stumbled upon TV gold.
The Puppy Bowl, which airs on Super Bowl Sunday starting at 3 p.m., features more than 60 adorable and adoptable puppies playing canine football, complete with a kitty halftime show and penguin cheerleaders.
Now in its tenth year, The Puppy Bowl continues to draw an increasing number of viewers, last year hitting 12.4 million, the night’s second most-viewed show and runner-up only to the human Super Bowl. The two-hour program is the product of 66 puppies, 28 kittens, five penguins, and more than 100 hours of footage, all filmed the previous October. In a miniature arena—this year’s face-off took place at the Geico Stadium—10 puppies fight, yawn, and waddle to drag a chew toy into the end zone and score a touchdown. They are cheered on by penguins and interrupted by a kitten halftime show after the first hour. At the New York Studio, Animal Planet’s Jared Albert explains that, as puppies are not natural football players, the real game is created in the editing bay in the months leading up to its debut.
All 66 puppies and 28 kittens who participate are up for adoption (not the penguins—they already have a home at the Columbus Zoo), and the cast and crew take home many of them long before the program airs. Backstage in the “Puppy Room,” the matchmaking has already begun. A girl over by Puppy Pen 1 has a white fluffy American Eskimo dog named Brody secured and content in her lap, while some Animal Planet crew are cooing over a 12-week-old black lab named Artemis. The puppies come from more than 20 shelters across the country—Artemis came from Puerto Rico, just for the occasion.
“You’re not just adopting any dog; these ones are stars,” Melinda Toporoff, an executive producer and one of the creators of Puppy Bowl, says. Artemis already filmed his game segment yesterday, but today he and the other adoptees are here to do their Hero Walk on the field.
Downstairs, the scaled-down Geico Stadium fills the center of the room while dry ice, cameras, lights and ladders orbit the perimeter. Handlers bring the puppies down in waves to prevent them from getting too tired, freaked out, or antsy while filming. In between clouds of dry-ice smoke, Coco, a poodle mix, is trying to do her Hero Walk across the Astroturf, but the director and crew are having a tough time coaxing her down the tunnel and onto the set. The strobe lights in the cardboard bleachers flash and after a second take Coco nails her walk and gets whisked away for a nap. After Coco, CeeCee also got her walk in two takes, motivated by some treats. Delachaise, a pit bull mix, made it across the field on her first try, but had to stop and sniff the camera. Unlike game day, there are no accidents or “puppy fouls” on the field today and cleanup time is minimal.
After each walk, handlers carry the puppies off set and everyone’s attention turns to the instant slow-motion replay on the many monitors glowing in the darkened stage area. Even the most timid and shaky of the puppies looks determined and confident in slo-mo. Aside from the three cameras pointed at the stadium, a camera in the bottom of a water bowl on the field captured paws, snouts, and the occasional puppy tail that ends up in the dish during the game.
Daniel Schachner, the actor playing the referee for Puppy Bowl X, waits on standby to help out on the field. Standing in the stadium, Schachner looks like a black-and-white-striped giant with a whistle. He explained that as a Puppy Bowl referee, he’s responsible for two things: scoring and infractions. If a puppy drags one of the many chew toys strewn across field into the end zone, it’s a touchdown. “Infractions are about puppy safety and keep the game moving,” he continued. Things like “excessive napping” and “wall flowering” are penalized. This year Schachner and the crew had a hard time with a puppy named Ginger. “She kept nipping at my socks and pulling them down,” he said. “She was very determined to expose my legs to the world.”
At the possibility of referee penguins (after all, they already have the uniform), Schachner shook his head: “I don’t think I could stand the competition.”
The next day everyone returned to film the penguins cheering on the puppy players. The set, cleared of chew toys, now housed a plastic igloo, several blocks of ice, pompoms and smelled strongly of herring. The stars of the day, five African blackfoot penguins—named Anchovy, Trout, Wahoo, Marlin, and Tuna—had already been on Letterman and, after the Puppy Bowl taping, were heading over to Good Morning America.
In their cheerleader personas, the penguins took over the stadium, entering through the igloo. African blackfoot penguins are flock birds, which means when one starts moving, the rest usually follow just to see what the leader is up to. The camera crew took advantage of this and used a green laser pointer to entice the cheerleaders to move around the stadium. Unlike the puppies and kittens, an errant penguin could not simply be scooped up when it got too close to a camera or wandered off the field—one nip from these guys could draw blood or even sever a finger. Luckily, as filming wrapped up no one had been nipped, and the penguins we safely returned to their carriers.
As usual, this year will have an MVP (that’s Most Valuable Pup), Meep the Bird (@MeepTheBird) Tweeting from the sidelines and the instant-replay Cute Cam. In celebration of the tenth Puppy Bowl, this year’s program will include Top 10 countdowns of favorite puppies, kittens, and cheerleaders.