For networks that aren’t NBC, this Sunday evening’s programming is basically dead air space — and lost advertising revenue. Most won’t even bother even trying to compete with the Super Bowl.

There is one notable exception: Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl. Now in its eleventh year, the cable network will once again air its all-day faux football puppy romp on the day of the Super Bowl. Beginning at 3 pm EST, Puppy Bowl XI will play on a loop for 12 hours, even during the big game. Last year it attracted 13.5 million viewers.

“From a sales perspective, it has turned into a major event for us,” says Jeff Pellegrini, VP of ad sales for Animal Network. Major sponsors can’t just buy Puppy Bowl commercials; they need to commit to the network in general, meaning they need to advertise with other programs as well. “It’s a big part of our year.” This year advertisers include GEICO, Subaru and, of course, Pedigree.

Melinda Toporoff headshotPhotograph by David Yellen — Discovery Communications

Melinda Toporoff, the executive producer, has been running the show since Puppy Bowl IV, making this her seventh year. A ten-time Emmy nominee, Toporoff took home an Emmy in 2004 for her work on an animated children’s show, “Peep and the Big Wide World.” Toporoff came to Animal Planet in February 2007 and immediately began lobbying to work on “Puppy Bowl.” “I basically threw myself at my boss and said, ‘Please give me Puppy Bowl!,” she says. She’s been doing the gig ever since.

Although the actual show is only two hours long, the planning and editing process go on for months, starting in July, leading to the shoot in October, and the editing all the way up until the week before the Big Game. The basic parameters of the event stay the same each year — puppies, a faux football field, a “ruffaree,” chew toys, and plenty of branded features (think: the starting lineup, brought to you by sponsor, Pedigree).

Every year, Toporoff and her team add a few new elements to keep things interesting. This year includes the return of animal cheerleaders (for 2015, goats) and the tweeting bird (@MeepTheBird), as well as a blowout halftime event: a performance by “Katty Furry.” The rules have changed a bit. A touchdown is still called for any chew toy dragged over the line, but this year, there will not only be teams (Ruff vs. Fluff), but also scorekeeping and a winner.

And every year, one thing always changes: the carpet. Says Toporoff: “By the end of each year’s shoot, no one really wants to touch that rug again.”

Animal PlanetPhotograph by Damian Strohmeyer — Animal Planet

The puppies, also, have to change each year and Toporoff gets to pick the best ones. “We’re definitely style over substance,” she says. Animal Planet works with Discovery Studios, which sends photos of the cutest puppies it can find in its network of reputable shelters. “My job is to not say yes to every single one” — which is not as easy as it might sound. “They’re all pretty darn cute.” This year’s starting line-up includes 55 puppies plus 30 on the second string, and by air-time all but two will have been adopted. (The puppies hail from 37 shelters across 20 states, and while a few get adopted on sight by Animal Planet staffers, most go through the shelters’ normal channels.)

Puppy Bowl has spawned its own retinue of copycats — last year, Hallmark launched a “Kitten Bowl” and Nat Geo Wild held a “Fish Bowl.” “We take imitation as the highest form of flattery,” she says. “And anyone who’s raising awareness for animals that need to be adopted, we’re on board with.” (Neither presented much of a challenge to the pups: Kittens scored about a million viewers, and the fish caught only 27,000.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy facing off with the biggest television event in the country. So how does Toporoff handle the pressure? “I carry around puppies in my pockets for petting throughout the day,” she says. “I joke but the truth is while we’re shooting, there’s always some puppy on my lap in the control room.”


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