The Puppy Bowl is better than the Super Bowl. I’m a really big football fan, but I’m a bigger fan of dogs. A football game can go wrong in so many ways: it can be a blowout, it can be low scoring, a player can suffer a life-changing head or neck injury. The only way a puppy can disappoint me is by crapping on the floor, and with the Puppy Bowl, it’s not my floor being crapped on. (And honestly, a puppy that knows it’s made a mistake is still ridiculously cute.)
If you’ve never watched the Puppy Bowl — which first airs Super Bowl Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, takes an hour break, then reairs for eight straight hours — you must. Basically, they edit dozens of hours of video of puppies running around into a football game. Sometimes a dog drags a toy into the end zone, and they call it a touchdown; sometimes penalties are called on dogs for doing various adorable things. My favorite Puppy Bowl moment was when a floppy doofus of a Great Pyrenees with no clue how to control her increasingly large puppy body stumbled over one of those rubber balls shaped like a geodesic dome. She hoofed it near the field’s uprights, and they scooped up the oblivious dog to tell her she’d kicked the first field goal in the game’s history. It was a completely unnecessary addition to a game that doesn’t need to have any connection to football to be enjoyable, but the utter confusion on the clumsy pup’s face made it worth it. A close second: when they made the dogs sit at attention for the national anthem, even though some of them were actually just staring at treats. And best of all, the puppies are all rescues that get adopted, often thanks to the show itself.
The history of Super Bowl counterprogramming extends years beyond the first Puppy Bowl, and most of it falls into two categories. Sometimes it’s been a genuine attempt to steal viewers with something unique during the Super Bowl’s halftime window: fake wrestling matches like the debut episode of MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, WWE wrestling matches billed as “Halftime Heat,” a halftime live edition of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” or the pay-per-view Lingerie Bowl. On the other end of the spectrum are things channels show because they know all the other eyes are focused on the biggest television event of the year. In 2009 and 2010, Fox was contractually obligated to air the rest of its episodes of the cancelled comedy ’Til Death, but didn’t want to do it during valuable time slots, so it dumped the episodes on Christmas night and Super Bowl Sunday.
When it debuted in 2005, the Puppy Bowl was supposed to be closer to the latter. The New York Times wrote in 2008 that Animal Planet executives thought it was going to be the equivalent of channels that show Yule logs burning on Christmas — cheap-to-produce television somebody might put on in the background of their party in the brief moments they weren’t watching football. Production values were pretty low; it really was just a bunch of puppies running around.
Since then, the Puppy Bowl has turned into a ratings monster of its own. It’s still about 100 million viewers short of the Super Bowl itself, but the first showing of Puppy Bowl XII was the third-most watched show on cable last Super Bowl Sunday, even outperforming ESPN’s post–Super Bowl edition of NFL Live. The 5 p.m. showing drew over 1 million viewers as well, and over 9 million people watched at some point during the 12-hour marathon.
As the ratings have risen, the game has gotten more elaborate. The Puppy Bowl now has announcers, sponsorships — they’ll give out the Petco Lombarky Trophy at the end of the game — a halftime show with kittens, and a tweeting parrot, and this year’s game will have rabbit and guinea pig cheerleaders as well as chinchilla and owl mascots. It’s gone from an afterthought to Animal Planet’s biggest event of the year.
They say the NFL is a copycat league, but the Puppy Bowl literally has copycats. The Hallmark Channel’s Kitten Bowl is the same thing as the Puppy Bowl, but, well, there are adoptable kittens instead of adoptable puppies. Some have good names such as DeMarco Purry and Mew Brees, others have … less good names, such as Tom Bratty Cat and Hissing Bolt, which is a very bad pun about a person who isn’t even a football player. I’m not going to use this space to say that puppies are better than kittens. Some people are cat people, some people are dog people. I won’t tell cat people that they’re wrong, even though they are.
But I will say that the Kitten Bowl is worse than the Puppy Bowl. For one, it’s a blatant rip-off, in both substance and style. Secondly, it’s announced by New York Yankees radio announcer John Sterling, who isn’t good at announcing baseball and is even worse at announcing cats. For some reason, he actually appears on camera several times during the show when we could be watching kitties. And thirdly, it’s just not as fun. Puppies love playing with each other, which lends itself to the theme; the kittens, while adorable, spend most of their time scratching posts and pondering why they were born into a world they despise.
However, I can’t knock the hustle. The Kitten Bowl gets roughly half the ratings of the Puppy Bowl, but that’s still over 1 million viewers. Considering Hallmark Channel doesn’t record any top 100 shows most weekend days — unless it premieres an original movie — that’s pretty impressive.
There’s also the Fish Bowl, broadcast on National Geographic Wild. This started out as a parody event. The first year it was just a single goldfish, Goldy, swimming in a bowl uninterrupted for four hours. The next year, they placed the fishbowl on a farm and added a couple of clownfish while touting the show’s horrible reviews.
National Geographic knew it had none of the selling points of the Puppy and Kitten Bowls — fish aren’t cute, they can’t play with football-shaped toys, and they don’t really respond to any sort of stimuli. But it was kinda funny, a meta rethinking of a surprisingly successful trend. Except, nobody watched it. The show reportedly drew just 27,000 viewers in its first year, and had a 0.0 rating last year.
This year, the Fish Bowl features two teams — the Los Angeles Clams and the Buffalo Gills, one of which has a player named Ezek-eel Elliott — and it’ll be announced by wisecracking penguins named Joe Duck and Koi Aikman, with a halftime show by Lady Ahi Tuna. (I would’ve gone with “Lady Guppy” for the Lady Gaga joke, but I’m not particularly proud of that. There are no winners here.) The game now features a slew of colorful species, rather than one sad goldfish, and the fish now score touchdowns, which are shown on finstant replay.
The Fish Bowl might have started as a parody, but it has now unironically adopted all the things people enjoy about the other shows — pretty animals, a winking semi-sports format, puns galore, and joking announcers. My guess is that at first, the humor of the early Fish Bowls was enough to justify the low production costs of focusing a camera on a fish and broadcasting it on a day few people were going to watch National Geographic Wild anyway. But the runaway success of the Puppy and Kitten Bowls forced them to consider actually producing a show that has entertainment value.
Puppy Bowl spin-offs are not guaranteed to work, though. In 2014, TLC aired the Toddler Bowl, which featured young kids traipsing around a mini-stadium. One of the selling points of the Puppy and Kitten Bowls is that the animals are adoptable, reminding us to support local animal shelters and maybe pick up an animal that needs a loving home. That was not the case with the Toddler Bowl: These were just people’s kids; a Washington Post writer told the tale of how his son was spotted at a local party by a member of the production staff. There is something undeniably cute about watching baby animals and pretending it’s a sport; there is something undeniably creepy about watching another human’s children and pretending it’s a sport. The Toddler Bowl lasted only one year.
The idea of Super Bowl counterprogramming was to create simple, inexpensive content on a day few people were looking for anything besides football. But they’ve grown into events that snag some of the largest audiences drawn by less-relevant cable channels all year. Now, everybody wants their version of the thing the Animal Planet invented a decade ago. The Puppy Bowl did it first; the Puppy Bowl still does it best. Others will fight, but the Puppy Bowl will win the cuteness wars.