By Ann Hoevel, CNN
(CNN) — A visit to the whirlpool tub cool-down zone signals the endgame for Sunday’s Super Bowl competitors. But for the furry beasts of the annual Puppy Bowl, a jump in the water pit means the competition for cuteness has only just begun.
Prime time is playtime for the scamps who have provided alternative programming to America’s biggest sports viewing experience for nine years. According to Animal Planet, the 12-hour Puppy Bowl marathon drew 8.7 million viewers last year.
The broadcast’s overload of adorable has included “cheerleaders” of various species; hamsters “flying” in the blimp over the Puppy Bowl stadium; Meep the bird, who, naturally, tweets from the sidelines (he got 21,000 followers on Twitter during last year’s Puppy Bowl); and even a hairless Chinese Crested “streaker” puppy.
You can thank executive producer Melinda Toporoff, who joined Animal Planet in 2001, for upping the cute factor with many of the above innovations.
“There’s some sort of inherent, unspoken joy in seeing these little fluffy things being who they are,” Toporoff said. “Looking into a puppy’s face … there’s something mesmerizing and calming. It just sort of soothes the soul.”
This year’s bowl will include new features like a slow-mo cute cam, snout-to-lens shots and lipstick cameras in the toys to get new points of view, she said.
The puppies will also have the new watery cool-down zone. It’s a setup that expands on the water bowl camera, with more splashing and even slow-motion shots of the puppies shaking off water.
Referee Dan Schachner is back Sunday for a second year of calling “personal fouls” and “unnecessary cuteness” penalties on the furry players.
The “rules” of the game are pretty loose. Mostly the puppies amble around a large playpen that looks like a football field, pouncing on squeaky toys or tugging on rope.
There is never a clear winner in the Puppy Bowl. Still, viewers might choose one kind of puppy to root for, or even one particular player, Toporoff said.
“You root for them to be the MVP — the Most Valuable Puppy — of the show,” she said.
The cast of fuzzy beasties, all between 8 and 12 weeks old, comes from shelters across the country, Toporoff said. Some have even come from Puerto Rico.
All the puppies, kittens, hamsters and Meep the bird are adoptable. Animal Planet normally films the frolicking in October in order to edit the show by Super Bowl Sunday, so many of the animals are already adopted by airtime.
“We have a pretty incredible track record,” helping PetFinder.com find adopters for the puppies, Toporoff said. “For this year, all but four have already been adopted.”
A representative from the Humane Society of the United States is present during filming to make sure the animals are safe. Breaks for water and cuddling are mandatory, and puppies are never on camera for more than 20 minutes at a time.
The casting of Puppy Bowl is all about the cuteness factor.
“These are desirable puppies,” Toporoff said. “They’re camera ready!”
The cheerleaders, too, go through a casting process. Last year, piglet cheerleaders hammed it up during the show. This year, the cheerleaders are hedgehogs.
Toporoff points out that if you want to adopt a hedgehog you’d better check with your state, because these unusual pets are not legal to own in all parts of the country.
Back in the Puppy Bowl studio, it’s a pet-lover’s dream come true.
“Our staff can’t keep their hands off our players,” Toporoff said. She personally dognaps one of the puppies during filming and brings it into the control room.
She confessed to being partial to “superfluffy” shih tzus.