The birth of cute

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE - BY MAURA JUD­KIS

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 ca­ble last year, and ac­cord­ing to Ad Week, 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. Squish face dogs. 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 longeared 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.)

“He got the most points ever, of any hedge­hog,” Fis­cher said. “He has got a per­son­al­ity that fills the room.” Not only that, he won a gold medal in the Hedge­hog Olympics. ( Yes, there is a Hedge­hog Olympics.) He won first place in the sprints, marathon and ob­sta­cle course, she said, but “he didn’t do well in the hur­dles.”

Show­time. The hedge­hog own­ers clus­ter around green-room TV mon­i­tors to watch their pets with the anx­ious­ness of stage par­ents. “Come on, baby,” one woman whis­pers. “I think she’s pretty pho­to­genic,” says an­other.

On the field, the hedge­hogs do not take to their cheer­leader out­fits, which more closely re­sem­ble bal­le­rina cos­tumes with their pink tulle. It’s about six sec­onds be­fore they wrig­gle out of them and head to the end zone buck-naked. The crit­ters are prov­ing more dif­fi­cult than an­tic­i­pated, and not just be­cause they’ve stripped out of their clothes.

“This one’s a biter,” a vol­un­teer said, pulling one hedge­hog off the field. Hed­wig quills up. Fis­cher, his owner, frets that the males will start to fight or mate. “Hed­wig’s af­ter the fe­male,” she said.

There is screech­ing, and as pre­dicted, a skir­mish.

“Fight! It’s the white one!” a crew mem­ber shouts.

Fis­cher swoops in. “Did he start it, or did some­one else?”

There is a foul on the field. Kleenex are sum­moned. The 69-per­son crew breaks for lunch.

Half­time

Twenty-one kit­tens ar­rive for the “Kitty Half­time Show,” and by 2 p.m., the room is to­tally blissed-out on fluff. Vol­un­teers and crew are hold­ing two to three kit­tens at a time. This is partly out of ne­ces­sity — some of the kit­tens are scal­ing the wire walls of their top­less en­clo­sures to make a break for it. But it’s mostly be­cause aww, kit­tehs, in the lan­guage of the cute­blogs.

The kit­tehs are placed on the set, which is out­fit­ted with a cir­cus-like jun­gle gym of scratch­ing posts, hidey-holes, blow­ing tin­sel, wag­ging toys, gy­rat­ing toys, ro­tat­ing toys and a blast of cat­nip. De­spite the per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs, the cats are sub­dued.

“Cat fish­ing ain’t go­ing so hot to­day, guys,” said one of the 13 vol­un­teers tasked with en­ter­tain­ing the cats with fish­ing-rod toys. No one’s bit­ing, it seems.

One par­tic­u­larly spunky cat bursts out of

“You can just point your cam­era in any di­rec­tion and it’s

Gavon Laes­sig News ed­i­tor of Buz­zfeed, on cov­er­ing the Puppy Bowl

s go­ing to pro­duce a squeal-in­duc­ing photo.”

a tube in the gym­na­sium. “Tell your friends how to do that — you’re good!”

Most of the cats are more in­ter­ested in the cam­era than the toys, though one black-and-white kitty with a Grou­cho Marx mous­tache treats the Astro­Turf like a scratch­ing post. For the grand fi­nale, a glit­ter­ing rain of con­fetti blows onto the set, be­wil­der­ing the cats and set­tling on the backs of the cam­era staff.

Af­ter 45 min­utes of film­ing, the kit­tens are get­ting tired.

“They’re so adorable,” coos one vol­un­teer.

Ham­sters, Meep and streak­ers

There have been other at­tempts at of­fer­ing coun­ter­pro­gram­ming dur­ing the Su­per Bowl, the most-watched tele­vi­sion event of the year, but none have per­se­vered like Puppy Bowl. Even the Lin­gerie Bowl, which aired on pay-per-view, was only staged for three Su­per Bowls (2004 to 2006).

Puppy Bowl has sprouted puppy ma­nia: There are Puppy Bowl par­ties and Twit­ter trend­ing topics. Snooki and Zooey Deschanel puppy-tweet as they watch. And this year, nam­ing rights to the Puppy Bowl sta­dium were sold for the first time, to Geico.

How do you make cute even cuter with­out be­ing too cute — if there is such a thing as too cute? That’s the chal­lenge for An­i­mal Planet each year.

“It’s hard not to want to keep adding other cute el­e­ments to this,” To­po­roff said. “It’s more about pulling it back in and fig­ur­ing out which one are we go­ing to go with. There are just so many cute fuzzy things out there.”

This year’s new cute el­e­ment, the hedge­hogs, are not very fuzzy. The Puppy Bowl has ex­per­i­mented with ham­sters op­er­at­ing a blimp cam­era, and Meep, a cock­atiel who “tweets” side­line com­men­tary. This year they’ll also add a postgame hot tub — who can re­sist shots of pup­pies shak­ing off ?

The pro­duc­ers have be­come ex­perts at us­ing tech­nol­ogy to evoke awws. The water bowl cam­era, cap­tur­ing tiny lap­ping tongues and the oc­ca­sional puppy fall­ing in, has be­come a main­stay. New this year are su­per-high-speed cam­eras that cre­ate slow-mo­tion shots of pup­pies run­ning, ears flop­ping ev­ery­where. They’ve also at­tached a cam­era to a hockey stick to catch ac­tion close-ups. Some of the dogs mis­take the stick for a toy and bite at it, which is prob­a­bly even cuter.

Once the 90 hours of footage from 15 cam­eras is pared down and edited to­gether, An­i­mal Planet so­cial me­dia man­ager Grace Suriel, 29, picks which cute mo­ments will be the most talked-about, so she

can tweet them as Meep to build buzz. On game day, she re­sponds to as many fans as pos­si­ble and retweets their best quips.

Suriel, who has worked for An­i­mal Planet for five years, said she re­mem­bers the first year Twit­ter be­came a cru­cial part of the Puppy Bowl strat­egy. In 2009, the show fea­tured a streaker — a hair­less Chi­nese Crested — that ran across the field.

“‘ Streaker’ trended right away,” she said, “and that’s when it really hit me — we have ar­rived in the pop cul­ture world.”

Meep was in­tro­duced last year and has about 15,000 fol­low­ers. Other than the hu­man Su­per Bowl, of course, Suriel said, the Puppy Bowl was the most-tweeted event that day — 270,000 tweets — and the sub­ject of four trend­ing topics, beat­ing out “The Voice.” Ev­ery year, the Puppy Bowl has bro­ken records on An­i­malplanet.com.

“It sounds silly to even say this out loud, but it’s so hard to break into cute th­ese days,” Suriel said. “There are so many — be­tween Maru and Boo and all th­ese an­i­mal celebri­ties, it’s crazy.”

Cute­blog­gers and An­i­mal Planet have devel­oped an un­spo­ken sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship, where they rely on each other for ma­te­rial and pub­lic­ity. Buz­zfeed, whose wheel­house is lists like “The 30 Most

Im­por­tant Cats of 2012,” sent two edi­tors and a video pro­ducer to this year’s Puppy Bowl tap­ing.

“You can just point your cam­era in any di­rec­tion and it’s go­ing to pro­duce a squeal-in­duc­ing photo,” said Gavon Laes­sig, Buz­zfeed’s news ed­i­tor. “We both re­al­ize that we are do­ing each other a fa­vor with this cov­er­age.”

‘The only hard-and-fast rule’

The In­ter­net has eaten cute like kib­ble ever since the first set of paws hit the Puppy Bowl Astro­Turf.

“Peo­ple take it more se­ri­ously than any of us do,” said Dan Schachner, who plays the ref­eree. “I’ve got­ten tweets from fans who were like, ‘No, that wasn’t tech­ni­cally a hold­ing call, or a face mask — he didn’t put the paws on that puppy’s snout.’ ”

Of course, the calls and the rules and the play­books are all a big joke. No mat­ter who you cheer for in the Puppy Bowl, pup­pies al­ways win.

“If you had to really write it down, the only hard-and-fast rule is that the chew toy needs to be dragged into the end zone,” Schachner said. “That’s it. It doesn’t mat­ter what di­rec­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter how it’s dragged there. It could even be by ac­ci­dent. That’s a touch­down.”

Still, Schachner takes his role quite se­ri­ously. To pre­pare, he watches YouTube videos of an­i­mals play­ing sports. He comes up with one-lin­ers for new penal­ties, like “Il­le­gal re­triever down­field.” (Sorry, gold­ens.) He refers to the day’s other game as “hu­man foot­ball.”

The big­gest chal­lenge of the two days of tap­ing? “To watch where I step,” he said.

Nearly ev­ery sur­face of the stu­dio is cov­ered in ab­sorbent pet pads on Day Two, when the 63 pup­pies ar­rive, es­corted by vol­un­teers from more than 20 shel­ters and res­cue so­ci­eties from across the coun­try.

An­i­mal adop­tion is the Puppy Bowl’s mis­sion, and all dogs and cats on the show are avail­able for adop­tion, though all but four will have found happy homes by the time of this story’s publi­ca­tion. Some shel­ters have built re­la­tion­ships with the show and give their dogs foot­ball-in­spired names. Ana Bustil­loz, of the Los An­ge­les SPCA, brought Blitz, a ter­rier mix, whom she hoped would fol­low in the foot­steps of Fum­ble, last year’s Puppy Bowl MVP. “We’re hop­ing for magic twice,” she said, “but she’s shy.”

Be­fore each an­i­mal goes on cam­era, he or she is given an ex­am­i­na­tion by Nancy Ash­ley, the on-site vet­eri­nar­ian. They also sit for a por­trait for An­i­mal Planet’s Web site. The pre­sen­ta­tion of each puppy is met with an “aww” in uni­son from ev­ery­one in the room. “This is Cop­per!” said a vol­un­teer, car­ry­ing a dachs­hund. “Aww, Cop­per!” replies the en­tire room, as if on cue.

Then the dogs are car­ried down to the sta­dium set, where they get their turn ac­cord­ing to size: Big dogs play with other big dogs, like pit bulls and Great Pyre­nees, while the toy breeds, like Ja­panese Chins and Chi­huahuas, get their field time to­gether to keep it fair.

When they are let loose with count­less stim­uli — a dozen toys in all shapes and sizes, new play­mates all around and a small bri­gade of hu­mans with shiny cam­eras and pock­ets full of treats, they don’t even know where to be­gin. Cop­per licks a cam­era hid­den in a toy. Mickey, a shep­herd mix, jumps up to chew the wires on a jib cam­era. Other pup­pies try to wrig­gle through the port­holes where the cam­era lenses poke through a plex­i­glass wall. Sud­denly, Agatha scores a touch­down.

“Congrats, Agatha! Small in stature, large in skill,” Schachner mugs for the cam­eras.

The en­tire pro­duc­tion is su­per­vised by Sandi Buck, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Hu­mane So­ci­ety’s film and tele­vi­sion di­vi­sion, who en­sures that the dogs, cats and hedge­hogs are far­ing well. When the cats get too hy­per­ac­tive or the pup­pies play too rough, she’ll swoop in for a sub­sti­tu­tion, giv­ing the an­i­mals a timeout.

Some will take their own timeout: Ex­hausted from their first plane ride and a day of play­ing, many of them tucker out half­way through the shoot and lay down on the field for a nap.

But at some point, when you’re con­fronted by so much cute­ness — two days of squishy faces and wag­ging tails and bel­lies to rub — cute be­comes ba­nal.

Es­pe­cially to the woman who has to clean it up. Com­mit a per­sonal foul in the Puppy Bowl, and the ref has to stop the play­ers from rolling in it.

“I don’t know why, but ev­ery­one else re­fused to do this job,” said Jessi BadenCamp­bell, the un­lucky line pro­ducer for Dis­cov­ery Stu­dios, as she stepped onto the 10-by-19-foot “field” with clean­ing so­lu­tion in hand. She may be the busiest per­son in the Puppy Bowl. In min­utes her ser­vices are needed again.

“We’ve got a puker!” calls out a cam­era­man.

“The only hard-and-fast rule is that the chew toy needs to be dragged into the end zone.

... It doesn’t mat­ter how it’s dragged there. It could even be by ac­ci­dent. That’s a touch­down.”

Dan Schachner Puppy Bowl ref­eree

And again. “Some­one made a touch­down right here!” calls out an­other, us­ing a eu­phemism for a moment you prob­a­bly won’t see on TV.

On Twit­ter, de­bates will break out about which player is cutest. There are dachshunds and bas­set-dachs­hund mixes that fall asleep on top of each other on the field. There is Elias, a pit bull from Los An­ge­les, who has a per­fect spot over his right eye and big, clumsy paws that he has yet to grow into.

But if you go by Schachner’s of­fi­ci­at­ing, it’s clear which pup­pies may take the prize for cute­ness. He calls a penalty for “ex­ces­sive cute­ness,” on three snug­gling morkies (Mal­tese-Yorkie mixes) that are the most adorable things to have ever lived. They look like ca­nine descen­dants of Swiffers.

“That’s a 10-yard penalty,” rules Schachner. “You know what? Fif­teen- yard penalty. It’s that cute.”

new york

So much cute: “Ref­eree” Dan Schachner, above, mod­er­ates the puppy play­ers at the tap­ing adopted. Be­low, kit­tens per­form the half­time show, and hedge­hogs are the cheer­lead­ers, re

PHO­TOS BY LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

g of An­i­mal Planet’s Puppy Bowl IX in New York. The only real rule is that all the play­ers get eplac­ing rab­bits and pigs. The hedge­hogs aren’t so crazy about the uni­forms.

PHO­TOS BY LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

At top, the puppy play­ers go through in­tense me­dia scru­tiny be­fore the game, just like play­ers in the Su­per Bowl. Left, the reg­u­la­tion field for the Puppy Bowl is 10 feet by 19 feet. Above, two pup­pies take a nap back­stage, though it isn’t un­usual for them to just nap on the field.

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