Sunday, September 14, 2014

Puppy Power Outage

In the event that the NFL is still even a thing you're comfortable following by February, you'll probably be well aware that the de facto main competition to the Super Bowl every year has, because our gods are strange, become the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. The Puppy Bowl, of course, features various adorable critters frolicking in a play area designed to look like a football field. They're all technically up for adoption, but they're all long gone and in homes by airdate.

But that is roundabout where that kind of thing remains, actually, as a one-off program. Puppies and kitties running around being cute is typically the realm of the Internet. You don't really see much in the way of television being made of it past short little clips. But that doesn't mean someone hasn't tried. Meet the Puppy Channel.

During the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, retired ad executive Dan FitzSimmons went channel surfing around what was then a much smaller cable lineup than today when the trial would get too boring. It was a long trial; that would happen now and again. All he found, though, were soap operas (which the O.J. trial had yet to all but kill but was about to), game shows (which were in the last days of having a network home, to my eternal dismay because yay for game shows), talk shows and reruns (which are talk shows and reruns). He didn't like any of these options, and the moment stayed with him. As he would explain through his daughter Molly on NPR's This American Life in 2010- or rather as , he found himself hoping for "a parking place on television. If you don't want to watch something that is there, you could have the TV set on, and it'd be playing something that didn't bother you, and would hold the place until your favorite show or what you chose to watch."

You might say 'well, just turn it off then'. That really doesn't work. I run into the same problem a lot, often when I'm writing these, right now in fact. Turning the TV off just irritates. The image of the blank, black screen is in and of itself distracting and annoying to me. Even if the TV is on mute, I just for whatever reason need something going in the peripheral vision, and I'd like it to be something I can unmute and get to watching when I'm done or taking a break. So an inoffensive channel has its uses. For this to happen, Dan decided to start his own cable network. With blackjack, and hookers... well, no, with puppies. Just puppies. He had seen a group of puppies up for adoption and noticed the crowd that had gathered around them, and decided that's what he'd go with.

That was literally it as far as programming. 24 hours of puppy footage. No shows, at least in the way that we think of shows with timeslots. No commercials. No human voices (aside from Dan's, occasionally singing about puppies for station ID purposes). Just endless footage of puppy frolicking with instrumental music in the background. That was to be the entire channel. Take one of those 10-hour YouTube videos, fill it with the aforementioned, set it on loop, and that was what Dan wanted.

Though there was a 1-hour pilot video. You can buy it for $20 on the network's spiritual successor,

So how in the world was this supposed to make money without commercials? Dan's idea was a combination of fees collected from the cable operators and product placement- clips in which the puppies would play with sponsor products. And the focus groups hired gave encouraging word; 41% of test viewers preferred it to CNBC, for instance. So in 1997, the Puppy Channel launched, with Dan knowing the standards for success in the cable world were comparatively tiny.

He didn't make it to 'tiny'. He only got a couple providers interested in carrying it. Everyone else, the larger providers, never got on board. A channel of just puppies? No human voices? Why in Creation are we making room on our satellite to carry that? And while the focus groups said they'd watch it, the cable providers were the ones that had the decision on whether to make it available to watch at all. Today, in 2014, maybe he could get away with it, but in the late 1990's, cable wasn't big enough yet. There were still only so many channels you could put out there, and Dan's wasn't one of them. So after four years, the Puppy Channel went off the air in 2001, a victim of the dotcom crash.

But as I said, it lives on in dotcom form. And the pilot is still there, waiting for a cable provider... that has a lot more potentially inoffensive options to offer viewers these days. At least there's the Internet.

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