Puppy Bowl: Where They Play For Love Of The Game

The Super Bowl is such an all-conquering tyrannosaurus that most networks don't even bother trying to counterprogram against it, except by tossing off repeats that might be of interest to a female audience. But one oddball alternative program has survived to become an institution in its own right, complete with Roman numerals just like the big game.

puppy photosMeet the puppies in Puppy Bowl V

Yes, Puppy Bowl, which those in the know like to call The Greatest Thing That's Ever Been On Television, is back on Animal Planet for a fifth year of lighthearted canine hijinks (Sunday at 3 p.m. with repeats every two hours into Monday morning). It's a game where none of the competitors are chemically pumped up and the only wardrobe malfunctions are bad shave jobs on the poodles. The show has been shortened from its traditional three-hour length, but if that means fresher pups in the second half, so much the better.

Puppy Bowl is about as simple as television gets: Grab some cute dogs, place them in a play area decked out like a football field, give them some stuff to chew on and bat around, and let them run wild for a few hours. While you'll see occasional "scoring" and "penalties," there's no real structure to the play, as anyone who has ever owned a puppy could have figured out for themselves (although watching one puppy trying to grab a toy from another does resemble football slightly). Sportscaster Harry Kalas, longtime voice of NFL Films, comments on the action.

Animal Planet realizes that not everyone is going to be watching while the actual Super Bowl is being aired (hence the many repeats), but still, millions will tune in at some point, including many who literally never watch the channel at any other time. The DVDs of past Bowls have been consistent sellers. And Animal Planet is quick to point out that all of the dogs featured come from rescue organizations or shelters, and that the American Humane Association invariably lends its good name to the proceedings as a guarantee that it's all in good clean fun.

With each ensuing year, Animal Planet has added more bells and whistles to the event to play up the similarity to a sportscast. There is now a "halftime show" featuring cats, a tailgate party (watch where you lift that leg), miniature cameras inside the water bowls, and this year for the first time, a parrot named Pepper will be singing the national anthem. Puppy Bowl has even become a franchise, as there was an Olympics-themed Puppy Games this past summer. How they missed Puppy Campaign '08 and Dancing With the Puppy Stars is anybody's guess.

Who are some of the players to watch for? There's a Doberman mix named Charlie Brown who appears primed to throw his weight around. An Australian shepherd mix, Eli, has the intense game-day stare made famous by Chicago Bears legend Mike Singletary. Another Australian Shepherd mix named Mercy appears to have the high spirits characteristic of the breed, though rumor has it he is threatening to hold out for extra Milk Bones and a private fire hydrant. And there's also a dog named Sarah Jessica Barker. Seriously.

Puppy Bowl V proves that you never know what might become a hit in television. Long after the current members of the Steelers and Cardinals are retired, puppies will be suiting up on the first Sunday in February for the biggest day in the animal world.