You could call them Yule dogs.
A few years ago, staffers at cablenet Animal Planet were pondering what to do as counterprogramming for Super Bowl Sunday. Suddenly, inspiration came from an East Coast TV tradition that has now gone national.
Recalls David Doyle, vice president of program development, "Someone said, 'How about if we do something like the 'Yule Log,' where we just point a camera at a roomful of puppies?'"
Those familiar with the "Yule Log" broadcast know that it is no more than footage of burning logs in a festive fireplace, to the accompaniment of seasonal music.
"Of course," Doyle says, "we couldn't do it that simply. We had to produce it a little bit. So we planted tongue in cheek and turned it into 'Puppy Bowl.' "
Now in its third incarnation, airing the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 4 (the three-hour presentation airs four times in succession), "Puppy Bowl" is mostly footage of puppies romping around a miniature football stadium, with an assortment of toys and a referee who steps in now and then to call a "puppy penalty" (OK, he's essentially a black-and-white-striped pooper scooper).
Last year, the show was jazzed up with the addition of the "Kitty Halftime Show," in which kittens romped and napped to the accompaniment of disco glitz and glam. It returns this year -- napping and all.
"The little kitties get tired," Doyle says. "That's why we only keep them out there for about 15 minutes. We don't want to overwork the kittens. The kittens play as much as they want to play. There's no real prodding of the kittens to play."
This year's puppies -- beefed up to 33 from 22 in 2006, almost half of them from shelters in the Washington, D.C., area -- are set loose in a bigger and better version of the Animal Planet Stadium, located at the network's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. But, as before, the crowd in the stands is nothing more than an illusion.
"Still painted people," Doyle says, "but they're cuter this year."
Also new for 2007 is the Tailgate Party.
"We have some rabid four-legged fans out in the 'Barking Lot,'" Doyle says. "We check in with them right after big plays and at halftime. They're rooting for their favorites; there are treats on the grill. When there's a big play, they go nuts. It's just like a regular tailgate party, just with a little more hair and a few more legs."
The tailgaters are trained canines from Birds & Animals Unlimited, headquartered in Orlando, Fla.
As always, a representative from the American Humane Society is on hand to make sure that participants get enough food, water and rest during the big game. As with the kittens, it's up to the pups to call the plays on the stadium floor.
"We set them up when they come through the tunnel for their big hero shot," Doyle says, "but other than that, they're just left to play and do their thing."
Although many of the puppies are available for adoption, viewers at home are unlikely to be able to take home their favorites. By the time the show airs, the puppies will be a couple of months older and likely already have new homes.
But, Animal Planet has partnered with Petfinder.com, which helps people find adoptable animals in their local area.
"That's really the message we're trying to get out," Doyle says. "Go to Petfinder, find shelters like the Washington Animal Rescue League" -- which supplied 11 puppies and 14 kittens this year -- "and adopt puppies just like these in your area."
Ranging in age from eight to 16 weeks, the puppies represent the widest variety yet of breeds. Along with mixed breeds, there are a Chihuahua, English bulldog, French bulldog, Yorkshire terrier, Pekingese, vizsla, golden retriever, Pomeranian, border terrier, cairn terrier, toy poodle, Shih Tzu, bichon frise, boxer and a trio of Samoyeds.
Each year, viewers can vote online for the Most Valuable Puppy. Doyle thinks this year's standouts may include the Q-Group, a quartet of terrier-mix siblings named Quarterback, Quester, Quencher and Quesadilla.
"They were just the most adorable things," Doyle says. "They've all been adopted, which is great."
Doyle also spotlights the golden retriever, Jackson, and Sonny, a "puggle," a pug-beagle cross. "He's a cute little guy," he says. "He'll be a crowd favorite."
One day, "Puppy Bowl" might reveal the fates of pups from years gone by. "We've thought about that," Doyle says. "We've thought about going back and revisiting some heroes of the past -- "Where are they now?" ... that kind of thing. But not in this year's show."
As to whether any Animal Planet staffers have headed home after "Puppy Bowl" with a new friend under one arm, Doyle admits, "I almost took one home this year. We have a dog at home that is very secure in his fiefdom, and we were afraid that bringing a second one in might not sit too well. I have a little Chihuahua-rat terrier mix.
"They say a lot of dogs think they're human -- this dog knows he's human. And, at times, he thinks he's the alpha in his home. He came out of 'Puppy Bowl' last year."
Fans of "Puppy Bowl" may enjoy similar shows in the future. "I can't say too much yet," Doyle says, "but we do have some other counterprogramming in the works, a la 'Puppy Bowl.' And it's not necessarily all sports-related either. You and I might be having a similar talk this time next year about some other things.
"We continue to want to create those experiences. I wish I had 10 more 'Puppy Bowls.'"