NEW YORK -- 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 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 AdWeek, 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 websites have only 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. Squishfacedogs. 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," says 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.
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, Va., who smuggled Henry, her Egyptian long-eared 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, Va., 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," said Fischer. "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 says, 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 says, 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 says.
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.
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," says 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 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.
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, for the first time, Geico bought the naming rights to the Puppy Bowl stadium.
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," said Toporoff. "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 post-game hot tub - who can resist shots of puppies shaking off?