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Behind the Scenes at the 'Puppy Bowl'
By: LA Times
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It's Game Day. A player steps onto the field, ready to face off in a ferocious contest of strength, agility and mental focus. Millions of passionate viewers in living rooms across the country have gathered to watch him compete in one of the year's most anticipated, uniquely American TV events. The weight of expectation — from fans, teammates and sponsors alike — is almost palpable in the air.

But Mr. Wigglesworth would rather be taking a nap.

A Shar-Pei with a coat of downy white fur, a pale pink nose and a wrinkled, jowly face, Mr. Wigglesworth is one of the 90 puppies who've traveled from far and wide to compete in "Puppy Bowl XIV," airing on Animal Planet a few hours before that other big game kicks off on Feb. 4. Perhaps exhausted by his journey to New York City from Florida, The 15-week-old ignores the squeaky toys and stuffed animals strewn across the 25-foot playing field, and promptly falls asleep on the sideline.
 

"I've got to call a penalty," declares referee Dan Schachner as a camera zooms in on the dozing puppy. "Excessive snoozing."

First broadcast 13 years ago, the "Puppy Bowl" has morphed from a novelty counterprogramming experiment into must-see television for dog enthusiasts, the football-averse and those who just can't resist a good animal pun. A major ratings draw and social media magnet, the event promotes pet adoption — all the "players" are non-professionals from 48 shelters around the country.

Despite its popularity, the vast majority of "Puppy Bowl" devotees probably have little idea of the intense effort behind producing the two-hour show and crafting a story around the unpredictable participants.

"The challenging part is you just can't produce animals like people," explains Simon Morris, the showrunner of "Puppy Bowl" for the past three years. He previously worked with more complicated two-legged subjects on shows like Bravo's "Real Housewives of Atlanta" spinoff "Don't Be Tardy" and appreciates that puppies are, by comparison, drama-free.

That's also the problem, says Morris, a former dachshund owner who is currently dog-less.

"All we can really do is put the puppies on the field, leave some toys there and cover it with lots of camera angles," he says.

As a dramatist, Morris admits he slightly prefers dogs to cats: "Filming-wise, they give you a little bit more. Take a pug. You have a pug's face and you've instantly got character and story there just with a closeup. Kittens I love, but they're a bit trickier to write."

The creative process begins in the summer, when producers reach out to shelters in search of puppies who will be 12 to 22 weeks old when the game films in October (spoiler alert: it's not live). The goal is not just to get a wide range of sizes and breeds, but to draw from as many shelters in as many states as possible.

Says Erin Wanner, vice president of production at Animal Planet: "We want a variety of puppies, because different puppies appeal to different people, and this is all about connecting somebody at home that says, 'Oh my gosh, I need to go adopt a puppy just like that.'"

This year's recruits come from 26 states and include the competition's first-ever international puppy — Mango, a Chihuahua/American Staffordshire terrier mix from Mexico. Also playing are two special-needs puppies: Buttons, a deaf and blind cocker spaniel, and Sophie, a three-legged goldendoodle.

The shelters transport the puppies to New York on their own dime. "It's an investment they see as well worth it" because of the exposure it brings, says Wanner.

Last year, the "Puppy Bowl" in its initial broadcast attracted a total of 2.5-million viewers, making it the most-watched cable broadcast of the day. Its success has even inspired copycat events — pun fully intended — such as the Hallmark Channel's "Kitten Bowl" and Nat Geo Wild's "Fish Bowl" — and drawn the same big-name advertisers (Geico, Subaru) you're likely to see during the Super Bowl.

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