Inside the Puppy Bowl, the visionary force behind online cute - Puppies and Hedgehogs and Hamsters Oh My!

Inside the Puppy Bowl, the visionary force behind online cute - Puppies and Hedgehogs and Hamsters Oh My!

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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 press 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. Come Sunday, many more of them will be tweeting about those puppies. And here those puppies are, being discussed in a five-page Web article and the 80 column inches of paper that several trees died for, as some readers will be sure to remind us. And 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 Silver Spring-based Animal Planet executives green-lighted a crazy idea: to film puppies playing football as counterprogramming 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 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 Web sites have multiplied. Cute Overload. Zooborns. Reddit’s “Aww” section. Buzzfeed.The Daily Puppy.The Itty Bitty Kitty Committee.Cute Roulette.The Fluffington Post.The Cat Scan. Caturday.Squishfacedogs. Stuff on My Cat. 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 in hundreds of YouTube videos.

“People caught on and got smart with the cuteness,” said 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 of every breed.

Yes, all this over a bunch of puppies rolling around in a stadium-shaped box.

‘This one’s a biter’

The two-day Puppy Bowl taping begins not with puppies, but with hedgehogs. They’ve been cast as cheerleaders this year, a role previously filled by bunnies and piglets. On a November morning in a Manhattan studio, their adoptive parents gather in the green room to share stories about their quirky obsession with the spiny-but-lovable creatures.

“He climbs into bed, he sleeps with me,” said Ashley Akenson, 36, of Falls Church, who smuggled Henry, her Egyptian long-eared hedgehog onto Amtrak to get him to the Puppy Bowl taping. “If you pet him when he’s not balled up, it’s very much like a hairbrush. If he doesn’t want to poke you, he won’t.”

Elaine Fischer, a hedgehog enthusiast who has traveled with her three pets from Roanoke, boasted about Speedy, who she said was a grand champion of hedgehog shows. (Yes, they have hedgehog shows.)
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