An Oral History of the First Ever Puppy Bowl
Beginning with the very first Super Bowl in 1967, the biggest event in football was also one of the biggest events on television. Every year, the big game annihilated the competition, making every other channel a barren wasteland of viewers. And so, the competing networks uniformly surrendered, offering up reruns of Lassie or other old TV shows and not much else.
That all changed, though, in 2005 when Animal Planet decided to take a stab at counterprogramming the Super Bowl by turning a running joke around the office into a reality. “When things got hard, someone would say ‘Let’s just point a camera at a bunch of puppies and call it a day,’” explains Margo Kent, who’d been with Animal Planet since it launched in 1996.
The suggestion had never been taken seriously before, but the new heads of the network figured they had nothing to lose and said, “Why not?”
Costing a mere $88,000, the original Puppy Bowl was a bare-bones production that relied on a crew of less than 50 and a ton of volunteers who were asked to occupy the pups in between shots. Produced over a day or two (depending on who you ask), the first Puppy Bowl was a chaotic mix of puppy-rotating and poop-scooping, all to fill three hours of programming for what everyone thought was going to be zero viewers.
But of course, the Puppy Bowl turned out to be a huge success. While the ratings were a modest 5.58 million viewers, the buzz around the show was tremendous, and the next year’s Puppy Bowl — and seemingly forever onwards — was all but guaranteed. Here’s the tale (and tails) behind the many goodbois (and producers and network execs) who were finally able to take a bite out of the NFL’s stronghold on Super Bowl Sunday.
A Double Dog Dare: The Birth of the Puppy Bowl
David Doyle, vice president of production and development for Animal Planet during the first Puppy Bowl: Toward the end of 2004, I’d just been hired as the head of development for Animal Planet. I’d been brought on by general manager Maureen Smith, who got there just a few months earlier. The network had been a bit sleepy at that time, so we weren’t afraid to take some risks.
Just a little while into my being there, Maureen told our scheduling team, “We really need a counterprogramming idea for Super Bowl Sunday.” And, somebody on our scheduling team jokingly said, “We should just point a camera at a roomful of puppies, that’ll do ratings.”
Margo Kent, executive producer at Animal Planet during the first Puppy Bowl, executive producer for Puppy Bowl II and Puppy Bowl III: I’d been with Animal Planet since it launched, and there was always this joke — when things got hard, someone would say, “Let’s just point a camera at a bunch of puppies and call it a day.” We’d joke about that when we were frustrated with programming or something.
Doyle: That was the impetus. It was literally that comment that stuck with Maureen; then she came to me and said, “You know, there’s something there.” I laughed and said, “Yeah.” Then I was the one who said, “Let’s theme it football and build a little stadium, and the puppies could be the players.”
Maureen Smith, network head of Animal Planet during the first three Puppy Bowls: Once we had the basic idea, we had to consider the advertising side. While this idea was inexpensive, we still had to sell advertising. We had an advertising rep in New York, and he bought into it pretty quickly. The planets really all aligned too because, at the same time we were having these discussions, Bissell was launching this new cleaning product called the SpotBot, which was designed for muddy footprints and pet stains. They were looking for a home, and our rep ran it up the flagpole and they loved it. Once we had Bissell, that’s when I said, “We’re doing this for sure.”
I do remember pitching it in some board meetings, and some of the looks I got were like, “Really???” But our boss, Billy Campbell, who was the head of all the U.S. networks, trusted us. He was all for it. Plus, it was low risk. We didn’t say it was the next Emmy winner or some goldmine. It was a one-off.
Honestly, while I thought it was an interesting idea that would get a lot of media attention, I didn’t know if it would get a lot of viewership. I’d been in TV a long time by that point, and Super Bowl Sunday was a desert. People ran reruns and old movies — Animal Planet used to do Crocodile Hunter marathons or something — but this was something we were putting effort into.
Give a Dog a Bone: Pre-Puppy Production
Doyle: The Puppy Bowl truly was a group effort, and those early development meetings were so much fun. The initial thought we had was “Don’t overdo this.” The tendency with stuff that’s so kitsch like this is to go nuts, but here the idea was, the more direct approach, the better. I’ve always likened it to the Yule log. This was our Yule log, just three hours of puppies playing in this football stadium.
We did throw a couple of bells and whistles at it. Originally, we wanted to just do cheesy elevator music under it; we didn’t want to narrate it or anything. Then, one of our marketing guys came to me one day and said, “Hey, two things, I think I can get the Monday Night Football music for you because it isn’t proprietary. And we’ve got to hire Harry Kalas as the announcer. He’s available.” Harry Kalas was the voice of NFL Films, and he’d been a legendary baseball announcer for the Phillies. So we added those things, and they were going to be our big bells and whistles.
It was a pretty organic development that was all done in Silver Spring, Maryland. We hired a friend of mine as the director, Brian Lockwood, who had been a sports director, so he brought a bit of that sensibility to it. We also used the internal Discovery Production Group, which was right there, and a stage they had in their building.
Laurie McGuckin, producer of the first Puppy Bowl: I worked with the Discovery Production Group, which was essentially Discovery’s in-house production company. I was doing shorter format stuff for Discovery International, but I was a young producer eager to do more.
When Animal Planet reached out about this Puppy Bowl idea, we’d just gone through a huge amount of layoffs, and we had this new boss in from Los Angeles named Robin Sestero. She was this heavy-hitter who was going to get us in shape making blue-chip productions. She was a little scary, but the two of us always had a bond because I quickly figured out that, like me, this tough production gal had a soft spot for animals; I think because she had rescue kittens.
After that meeting when she first mentioned the Puppy Bowl, I stuck my head in her office and said, “I’d love to help out on that new Animal Planet Puppy Bowl thing. I can hold the puppies, whatever.” She said to me, “Good, have at it, kid; you can produce it.”
The first steps were finding the dogs. From the beginning, they had to be rescues — that was number one with the network and it still is today. We worked with the Washington Animal Welfare League. I chatted with the director and said, “We’re going to need puppies. I don’t know how many.”
Once we found the puppies, we had to present them to the network. We’d show them the picture and where they were from, their backstory and what makes them unique. The first challenge was that the network wanted all of them to look different. All of them had to be super cute and all of them had to have a personality. We basically had to cast the puppies. It was hard to find that, especially in the first year, but we did it. All told, we ended up with 25 or 30 puppies.
Then we had a set designer who worked with us. Obviously, we needed a football field, and we worked with graphics to get that Puppy Bowl sign that sits in the center of the field. This was all done with no budget. It was just $88,000. For three hours of content, that’s nothing. It was very bare bones.
Working Like a Dog: Shooting the First Puppy Bowl
McGuckin: On the day of shooting the first Puppy Bowl, everyone was abuzz. Those were the most magical days because all these people knew that all these puppies were coming, so we were staffed with so many volunteers from the building and from the network — even the fancy network people were like “I want to work on Puppy Bowl.”
People volunteered in droves, and we had this conference room cordoned off with huge rolls of plastic on the floor. There were probably 50 to 100 volunteers. We also had people on site adopting animals; in the lead-up to the day, people were adopting them ahead of time from the casting photos to take them home after the taping
Doyle: The pups were all adopted well before Super Bowl Sunday actually hit. We had a lot of people reach out, asking to adopt those pups, but we were like, “Those pups are probably parents by now.”
McGuckin: On the stage, everything was insane. There were all these moving parts, and I had to get enough cute stuff to fill three hours. We were totally flying by the seat of our pants and just getting footage. There was no story, it was just cute puppy wallpaper. At any given time, there were only eight or ten puppies at once. We grouped the similar sizes together, and if they started misbehaving, they got pulled. They’d only be out there for 15 to 20 minutes at a time before they’d be rotated out because they got tired fast. It was like they were in a little puppy union.
We had puppy play scheduled, and we got hero shots where they ran through the tunnels. It was a challenge to get clean shots of these little puppies, though. They couldn’t be humping, they couldn’t be pooping, they couldn’t be peeing. You couldn’t see any of that, so we had to cut around all that and cut around all the people because the set was so tight. It was all about getting as much puppy play as you could.
Doyle: The first few times the referee stepped into the stadium, all the pups mobbed him. It was very funny to watch. One of the smartest things we did was to add a glass water bowl at one end of the stadium and put a camera underneath it. It was unbelievable how magnetic it was to watch these puppies step into this bowl and play with water and drink it. We also put a football on top of an RC car and ran the little RC car around the stadium and the dogs would attack it. We didn’t have teams like they have now. It was just every puppy for himself.
McGuckin: The front of the stage had this huge plexiglass wall to keep the puppies in. I was windexing the wall a lot because there was so much puppy drool on it. There were a few of us cleaning up poop, too.
Speaking of which, there was also a “Puppy Bowl Pool” organized by an editor. They had a piece of paper with the field drawn out and broken into squares. They were collecting money for a pool for which puppy would poop and where. If they pooped on your square, you’d win the money. That became a thing for many years to come.
Doyle: We shot and shot and shot the puppies playing in the little stadium for a couple of days, and then we edited it together.
McGuckin: The bulk of the work was done by the editors. The amount of footage that was dumped on them was insane. It was like hundreds of hours of footage. We had to go through each camera and moment to find what we needed. It took a lot of time to craft. In post, we also picked the MVP, a Jack Rusell Terrier named Max. They do that on the shooting day now, but back then, it was just about who we had the right footage of to make a story out of.
Doyle: We didn’t do a play-by-play. We just had Harry Kalas introduce the show at the top, and you’d hear his voice as we went to commercial. We also recorded some lines like “Oh, look at that hit!” on replay. We didn’t have a sideline reporter or anything like that either. They’ve done much more with it since, and I’m undecided as to which approach is better.
A Dog-Eat-Dog (Television) World: Game Day
Doyle: We programmed the Puppy Bowl for 12 hours that day, and the response just blew us away. We won advertising awards and all kinds of stuff. It was a fun little thing that took on a life of its own. People were beyond thrilled with it because it had a real zeitgeist-y, pop-culture-y appeal. We started seeing references on TV shows and things like Entertainment Tonight.
Kent: It was a funny thing to tell your friends on Super Bowl Sunday. This was before Facebook, but all of us were talking about it a lot. It had the most buzz around Animal Planet and the building because it was such a funny idea. People were so happy that such a simple thing could do so well.
Smith: That day, I was getting calls from people who were doing exactly what I was doing: I had the Puppy Bowl on in one room, and my husband had the Super Bowl on in another room, and people were migrating into my room, particularly during the boring parts of the Super Bowl pre-game.
McGuckin: I honestly can’t remember if I watched the Puppy Bowl that first year. At that point, I was just really glad to be done with it. I’d already watched it 30 times in the edit suite. That was enough.
You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down
Smith: After that first year, we knew we were going to do it every year. Still, not one of us could have ever predicted that one day Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart would be hosting the Puppy Bowl.
Doyle: You don’t know what’s going to be a hit on TV. You can do all the research and hire the biggest name actors, writers and directors, and it can be a complete flop. Then, you can throw $80,000 at something almost on a lark, and it turns into this pop cultural success story. I think Yahoo! TV called it “the greatest idea in the history of television,” and Rolling Stone called it “the greatest counterprogramming stunt ever.” We knew it was fun and worth doing, but we had no idea it’d resonate the way it has.
I’ve heard anecdotal stories of Super Bowl parties where the Puppy Bowl was the big picture and the Super Bowl was the little picture in the picture-in-picture. That was the shocking part — seeing how much people enjoyed it.
I’ve worked the Oscars and won Emmys, but the Puppy Bowl is the one that captures everybody’s imagination. It’ll be on my gravestone: “Puppy Bowl Guy.” I wish I could come up with more stuff like that. I’ve had other successes, but nothing that has the staying power of the Puppy Bowl.
Kent: I could cure cancer, yet people would still ask me, “What was it like working on Puppy Bowl?”
Smith: The Puppy Bowl was the perfect way to, not really make a parody of the Super Bowl, but it was our branded version of the Super Bowl, with a football setting with adorable animals front and center. That was our brand — putting the animals first and tapping into the love that people have for animals. Having this cause with the plight of animals in shelters being so central to it. The Puppy Bowl was also just different. We spend so much time in the entertainment industry looking at all the bells and whistles and trying to make something huge, when sometimes the simplest things can be just perfect.