NEW YORK – When reporters from the New Yorker, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, Good Morning America, the Associated Press and, yes, the Washington Post have all convened upon one event, it must be important.
An appearance by the president. A news conference about dignified matters, with plenty of throat-clearing and questions taken at the end. Something worthy of those camera crews schlepping pounds of gear.
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. Today, many more of them will be tweeting about those 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 our 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 counter-programming 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. The Itty Bitty Kitty Committee. That’s just to name a few, and does not include the genuine animal celebrities, like Boo, the furball of a Pomeranian who has plush toys in his own image and a book, or Maru, the box-loving Japanese cat who has starred on YouTube.
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.
Yes, all this over a bunch of puppies rolling around in a stadium-shaped box.
There have been other attempts at offering counter-programming during the Super Bowl, 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.
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 super-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 close-ups. 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 retweets their best quips.