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Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl becomes big event

The Associated Press, Friday, February 4, 2011, 2:53am (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) -- On Sunday, competitors will race around the field, score touchdowns, slam into each other and bark at their opponents when things get a little rough.

Yes, it's Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl.

The network's annual cute-a-thon started seven years ago to entice television viewers bored with endless Super Bowl pregame shows and has become one of Animal Planet's most popular events. The idea is simple: Take a bunch of adorable puppies and film them running around, sniffing and wrestling with each other for two hours.

All together now: Aww.

The original inspiration was the Yule Log, a popular Christmas broadcast in the New York City market that airs a loop of wood burning in a fireplace with a holiday music soundtrack.

"Somebody said to me, 'Babies and puppies, they tear open your heart,'" said Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet. "There is just something about how excruciatingly cute they are."

The Puppy Bowl has a football theme, with the dogs scoring "touchdowns" if they cross a goal line with a chew toy. There's no such thing as going too far in this sport, which has a "blimp" staffed by hamsters, chickens as cheerleaders and a musical halftime show starring cats.

The event, which runs for two hours and starts at 3 p.m. EST, averaged nearly 1.1 million viewers last year for Animal Planet, the Nielsen Co. said. That's nearly twice what the network averages in prime time.

It's become big enough that it even has product placement, with a car company paying for the right to have its vehicle drive the border terriers, beagles, pugs, spaniels and Schnauzers out onto the field, Kaplan said.

"It's like eye candy," said Andrew Schechter, a producer of the show who serves as the on-air puppy referee. "To know Puppy Bowl is to love it."

Schechter holds pups up for adulation when they score touchdowns and calls puppy penalties. As with most referees, there's no glamour in the job; Schechter is also responsible for mopping up after the untrained competitors.

"It's my job to keep a clean game — clean in every sense of the word," he said.

A total of 47 pups participated in this year's Bowl, competing for the MVP Award, or Most Valuable Pup. Basically, the cutest dog wins.

Animal Planet casts the show, which was filmed last fall in the New York area, with the help of an animal adoption agency. Participating dogs are usually available for adoption, although most from this year's show already have homes. They're often snapped up because agencies advertise the dogs as "stars" of Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl, Schechter said.

Schechter usually attends Puppy Bowl parties — seriously — to watch the event every year. What's most fun for him is seeing people react to the show, he said.

"I don't think anyone here thought it would become a cultural phenomenon," Kaplan said.

Animal Planet will repeat the Puppy Bowl a couple of times on Super Bowl night, ensuring constant canine action if the real football players start dogging it and viewers search for alternatives.

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