After eight years, the Puppy Bowl canines are getting their own cheering section.
Animal Planet is adding a squadron of hedgehog cheerleaders -- who will don tutus during at least part of the event -- alongside the puppies playing on the gridiron and kittens performing during halftime of Puppy Bowl IX, which is set to air from 3-5 p.m. Sunday, opposite the Super Bowl.
Also new this year: The 63 puppies will be provided with a "hot tub" to take a rest; new "Puppy Cam" technology will get viewers closer to the action, with "in your face" camera angles; and special cameras will show some of the best moments in slow motion.
Meanwhile, sideline reporter "Meep the Bird" will return to tweet live updates (@MeepTheBird) from the newly named Geico Stadium, while Dan Schachner is back as "The Ref," who will send a player to the locker room with a puppy penalty if need be. Stars from Animal Planet series including Finding Bigfoot, Tanked and Call of the Wildman will provide "Surprisingly Human" commentary throughout the game.
The event has become a big success for Animal Planet: Last year's installment set viewership records for the network, and revenue for this year's Puppy Bowl is up 19 percent compared to last year. In addition to Geico -- the first company to sign on for naming rights -- other sponsors include Pedigree Food for Dogs, Bissell, Ice Breakers Mints, Subaru of America and Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me 2.
"Every year, we go through, 'Can you top this?' " said Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet Media, which hosted a "tailgate party" at its offices in Silver Spring, Md., on Friday. "It's become a cultural phenomenon. It's growing in terms of ratings but also in terms of buzz. Every year, more and more people are buzzing about it. Celebrities are talking about it and tweeting about it."
Kaplan added that last year's Puppy Bowl was the most talked-about cable TV event in social media and during the broadcast generated more than 200,000 tweets and four worldwide trending topics. She also noted how important the event has become to the network's brand.
"Animal Planet owns 'supercute,' and Puppy Bowl is the genesis of that," Kaplan added. "This year, we're launching the new season of Too Cute out of Puppy Bowl, so it's very integral to our brand."
All of the animals featured in Puppy Bowl IX come from shelters and rescue organizations across the United States and Puerto Rico. Kaplan said that last year, the network's pet-rescue site Petfinder.com last year saw a 22 percent increase in visits and a 32 percent jump in search referrals, including a whopping 500 percent increase in referrals from Animal Planet's website as a result of the Puppy Bowl.
"We have a big focus on animal rescue and animal adoptions at Animal Planet," she added. "There are so many cute little dogs that need to be adopted, and it's been the focus of Puppy Bowl from the beginning. By the time Puppy Bowl airs, the puppies who starred in the show have already been adopted."
This year, the network also launched a live "Puppy Cam" on its website featuring round-the-clock coverage of canines from the Washington Animal Rescue League, and those animals predicted the winner of the upcoming Super Bowl. Their pick? The San Francisco 49ers.
As for Puppy Bowl X, Kaplan said plans are already in the works.
"Next year is Puppy Bowl 10, which is 70 in dog years, so we are already planning," she said. "As good as this year is, next year will be even bigger and even better."
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