'Puppy Bowl' Beginnings: How the Greatest Idea in TV History Made Its Unlikely Debut

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Teams Ruff and Fluff compete on the field during 'Puppy Bowl XI'
Teams Ruff and Fluff compete on the field during 'Puppy Bowl XI'

That headline may sound like a bit of hyperbole. But how else would you describe a Super Bowl counterprogramming project that began with Animal Planet's simple idea of airing footage of a boxful of puppies playing (operating on a modest $80,000 production budget? Now 10 years later, that idea draws 13.5 million viewers and has become its own Super Bowl Sunday event.

"We always made the joke, 'Let's just put a box of puppies on the air and call it a day,'" former Animal Planet executive producer Margo Kent tells Yahoo TV. "In the beginning, reporters would say to us, 'Don't put this show on. Just put a box of puppies on.' It was a joke for years, and then we had a new general manager, Maureen Smith, who came in, and David Doyle, the head of production and development, and they were told, 'You've got to do something to counterprogram the Super Bowl.'

"So, we made that joke again. And [Maureen and David], they're the ones who had the guts to go, 'OK, let's try it. Let's see what happens,' because at a network, everything is so calculated. Concepts go through so much before they make it to air, and they just went with it and did it."

Take a look back at the very first Puppy Bowl:

This year's Puppy Bowl — Puppy Bowl XI — is a much fancier affair than PB I. It features 85 pooches running around on the field, 21 kittens starring in the Bissell Kitty Halftime Show (which features the performance of feline Katty Furry, singing "Roar" in a custom-made Katy Perry-esque dress), five Nigerian dwarf goats as cheerleaders, a hamster air show, Meep the Bird tweeting game details, and a new scoreboard (powered by a hamster on a wheel) that will keep tabs on the game, since the puppies will be divided into teams for the first time. Team Fluff versus Team Ruff, of course.

Breaking down this year's Puppy Bowl by the numbers:

Infographic designed by Jayme Perry
Infographic designed by Jayme Perry

But Kent and her Animal Planet cohorts started with a few clever ideas: a 10-by-19-foot box tricked out to look like a football stadium and dozens of puppies rounded up from local shelters so that their tongue-in-cheek Super Bowl alternative would also serve as a showcase for pets in need of forever homes.

'Puppy Bowl I' (2005)
'Puppy Bowl I' (2005)

"It was dirt-cheap the first year. I think we spent $80,000 or something that first year on everything," Doyle says. "I think it was the least expensive original programming any of us had ever done.

"We had this pyramid; where most programming puts the humans at the top of the pyramid, for Animal Planet, animals were at the top of the pyramid, and we looked at it like it was a human's job to make sure that animals were always front and center. With the domestic pets, adoption, spay, and neutering were big, big messages for us. It was always understood that if we did this, we were going to be using shelter pups and getting that message out."

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'Puppy Bowl I' (2005)
'Puppy Bowl I' (2005)

Casting that first year was limited to local shelters, so there were no big travel requirements to go to the Discovery Channel headquarters in Maryland, where PB I was filmed. But puppies, Doyle says, "are a fleeting thing at shelters," and "we wanted them to be as young and cute as possible, so that would just be a thing that would attract people," he adds.

With American Humane Society representatives on set to make sure the "players" were treated like top dogs, Puppy Bowl producers could then move on to hiring an announcer for the broadcast, and Harry Kalas, the late play-by-play announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies, was the "no-brainer" choice, Doyle says.

With two days of filming planned for the first game — meaning two days of puppies running around a field, playing, eating, drinking — there were also practical matters to attend to. And that's where the idea of the referee came in. Sure, the production assistants randomly chosen for those first few Puppy Bowls and put into the black-and-white uniforms were there to help make the "game" look more official — but they were also the producers' poop plan.

The referee makes calls during 'Puppy Bowl XI'
The referee makes calls during 'Puppy Bowl XI'

"That's a 'welcome to television' P.A. job," says Kent. "That's a badge of honor when you're telling your story, when you become a producer — 'What was your first job?' 'I cleaned up poop on the Puppy Bowl.' That's kind of how the referee came to be. Instead of trying to hide everything — we usually didn't show poop; we'd show pee — we tried not to hide it, because it's all part of it, and we wanted to make a joke out of that, too."

'Puppy Bowl I' (2005)
'Puppy Bowl I' (2005)

Ditto the naps that the puppies would inevitably take after — sorry — pooping out under the hot Puppy Bowl stadium lights, and the wrestling they did with each other over the toys that were scattered on the field to get their attention and encourage play, as well as all that time they spent in what has remained one of the best ideas within the great idea of Puppy Bowl: the see-through water bowl, equipped with cameras to capture the inherent puppy love of playing where they drink.

Puppy Bowl, as a TV show and a beloved annual program, also owes at least part of its success to the fact that viewers tune in each year confident that the producers are going to add fresh fun to the mix, be it parachuting kittens, the tail-gate party, or a postgame hot tub for the tuckered pooches.

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Those are the whys and hows of Puppy Bowl's history, but the special's enduring success always circles back to one simple idea: You cannot go wrong — you can, in fact, win tens of millions of viewers — by acknowledging, highlighting, and continuing to respect the fact that there are few things in the world cuter or more universally loved than a pack of puppies frolicking, napping, drinking, and, yes, even pooing, together. The pop-star-homage kitties; the bunnies, hedgehogs, and piggies who've been cheerleaders in years past; and the hamsters watching the game from a blimp are icing on the cake, which is so overrun with cuteness that you've probably already switched over to YouTube to look up footage of the puppies being charged with excessive cuteness.

By the way, the current Puppy Bowl referee, actor Dan Schachner, says his standards for what qualifies as one of his "excessive cuteness" penalties increase every year. "We had a puppy pileup one year — it was five, six puppies on top of each other and totally adorable," he says. "Half of them were napping, the other half were just lounging. Nobody was really playing with the ball, but it was cute. Since then, puppies will snuggle with each other; they'll touch noses; they'll look to be holding hands. It'll look like they're walking together. They'll seem to smile to the camera. You can imagine, with 17 different cameras, we get all sorts of angles. We have cameras embedded into the chew toys. We never miss out on anything that's happening."

Teams Ruff and Fluff compete on the field during 'Puppy Bowl XI'
Teams Ruff and Fluff compete on the field during 'Puppy Bowl XI'

As for the Puppy Bowl's service intentions, each year most of the shelter dogs that make up the roster are adopted by the time the show airs (Puppy Bowls are filmed in October or November, so there is time to edit all those hours of squee-inducing footage into a choice two-hour special). As of Jan. 30, only two of the 85 pups in the Puppy Bowl XI lineup are still waiting for their forever families (Olaf and Starlight, in case you want to scope them out on the Animal Planet website).

"What's so great about the Puppy Bowl is that everyone is watching, and they're seeing all these really cute dogs of all breeds, and kittens for the halftime show, that were all shelter pets. It just reminds people that there are beautiful, vivacious pets waiting at shelters, waiting for homes," says Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles communications and marketing director Ana Bustilloz.

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Bustilloz also helps choose spcaLA pups to participate in the Puppy Bowl, flying to New York (where Puppy Bowl is now filmed) each year with a player in tow. This year's spcaLA rep: the cocker spaniel previously known as Rosie, later renamed Drew Carey after she taped an appearance on The Price Is Right. Rosie/Drew had been adopted by a family that had given her foster care before she even returned from her Puppy Bowl business trip. Bustilloz also helped land an spcaLA terrier mix named Fumble a spot in Puppy Bowl VIII. Fumble not only was that year's MVP (Most Valuable Puppy) but also found a permanent home.

But viewers aren't the only ones who've fallen prey to Puppy Bowl love. Puppy Bowl II and III director Brian Lockwood loved his time with the dogs so much that he and his wife were inspired to work with the Guide Dogs of America foundation in California, raising and helping to train puppies that will become guides for visually impaired men and women in the United States and Canada. The Lockwoods have raised six guide dogs so far, including Baron, the yellow Lab who's now a guide for a blind law student. Another trainee, Scully, couldn't continue with the program after fracturing his paw, but the black Lab now lives with a good friend of Lockwood's: his fellow Puppy Bowl alum Doyle.

"I think it just comes down to exquisite cuteness," current Puppy Bowl executive producer Melinda Toporoff — she who commissioned the custom Katty Furry frock — says of the special's ever-increasing status as a beloved annual pop culture event. "These puppies are just doing what they do, and there's some real charm and comfort and humor that comes from watching these little fluffy things be who they are."

Puppy Bowl XI premieres Feb. 1 at 3 p.m. on Animal Planet.