On a sopping Sunday in April, after months of meticulous planning, Animal Planet's cameras are ready to roll at the Baltimore County Kennel Club's annual dog show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
Like at any other dog show, pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels parade before a judge, "sparkling" to applause. But on this day, special commentators are at ringside: former Olympians Donna de Varona and Wendy Hilliard, and international dog expert Wayne Cavanaugh. They're here to cover the dog show the way the Olympics are covered: by showcasing the event's elite athleticism, suspense and backstage pathos.
After the cameras stop and outtakes are swept from the #F editing-room floor, Animal Planet hopes it will have created a new hybrid for television and a new breed of dog show. The "National Dog Championships" will mix traditional dog-show coverage with close-and-personal views of the dog-show world's quirky personalities and passions. And it will create a new national dog competition, with dogs collecting Animal Planet points as they compete through the year at existing local dog shows across the country.
If Animal Planet can make this concept work -- television viewers can judge tomorrow, when the first of four shows airs -- it will be another coup for the fabulously successful niche network based in Bethesda.
Since debuting in late 1996, Animal Planet has become the fastest-growing cable network in a glutted field increasingly studded with specialty channels. It reaches 40 million homes and has gained 8.4 million subscribers this year alone. In comparison, the top cable channel, ESPN, reaches 67 million homes.
A Discovery Channel offspring, Animal Planet (motto: "All animals. All the time") grafts tried-and-true television formats onto animal-related coverage. "Emergency Vets," an "ER" knockoff, spins real-life narratives of animals treated at a Colorado veterinary clinic. "The Pet Shop" blatantly mimics the "Tonight Show," with host Andy Kindler bantering about dogs, cats and more exotic fauna, not their celebrity owners. "Horse Tales" is a 13-part PBS-esque series that traces the role of equines throughout history.
"National Dog Championships" is the logical extension of Animal Planet's programming strategy. It will highlight plucky contenders, puppies on the threshold of stardom, dedicated handlers and behind-the-scenes drama.
"We're going to make [the audience] care," says David E. Gerber, the network's director of production.
Capturing the "entire dog show experience" is a departure from coverage on the Outdoor Life channel and ESPN, where one or two cameras statically document the competitions, and interviews with handlers and trainers are sparse.
Using computer graphics, "National Dog Championships" will explain "reasons behind competition rules and regulations and judging standards," Gerber says. And because audiences "want know who to root for," dogs on a winning track will be followed, up to their crowning moment.
With the assistance of a dog-show production company, Animal Planet has devised a "National Dog Championship" scoring system that awards points for participation in 30 AKC shows. (Only dog shows in Baltimore, Houston and Phoenix and a fourth, undetermined city, will be taped and televised.) Early next year, the top 36 point earners will meet in the finals of the Animal Planet Dog Championships, and one lucky dog will receive the Eukanuba Cup, named after the contest's sponsor, an Iams dog food brand.
Ideally, Animal Planet will not alter a dog show in observing it: "We're not asking them to change the way these dog shows are held," Gerber says. "We're changing the way the audience at home sees it."
To that end, Animal Planet hired Trans World International -- a sports-television production company more accustomed to documenting golf, skating and the Whitbread than dog shows.
Dog show veterans, like Don Peacock, president of the Baltimore County Kennel Club, are enthusiastic about the chance to expose a widespread passion to an even broader audience. And, "the club feels that it is a real feather in our cap that Animal Planet has elected us as their prototype," Peacock says. Animal Planet chose the Baltimore County show as the series' launching point because it's well-established, attracts high-caliber dogs and is close to the channel's Bethesda headquarters.
Still, the Animal Planet and Trans World crews have their work cut out. A tight shot of competitors might make good TV, Cavanaugh says, but handlers "don't care about getting a dog's best profile if it's interrupting their flow."
Greetings from Baltimore
So far, so good on this day at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. The Baltimore County Kennel Club's annual show, the state's largest with 2,700 dogs, is running smoothly, barring a few complications. (The judges, for example, aren't keen on using the "telestrator" to circle finalists the way John Madden circles football plays on winter Sundays on an identical monitor. The idea is ditched.)
Standing in the ring, Cavanaugh, the dog expert, and de Varona, a 1964 Olympic swimming champion and now a staple of Olympic coverage, offer greetings from Baltimore, a city known for "crab cakes, baseball and a waterfront that inspired the National Anthem!"
As if he were setting the stage for a Lipinski/Kwan rematch, Cavanaugh plugs the impending rivalry by announcing a "red-hot" Pekingese, a "super" Bouvier des Flandres and a white standard poodle "that's been shooting out the lights from here to California!"
On cue, the Sporting Group frisks into the ring, trailing nervous handlers. The judge, in plaid suit and bright blooms of rouge and lipstick, soberly performs her duty, apparently oblivious to the cameras.
To get their dogs to follow commands, handlers bait them with hot dog chunks and chicken liver, often stashed in their cheeks like tobacco chaws. And with fleeting gestures, the handlers subtly direct the judge to their dogs' well-formed loins and away from flaws.
After much deliberation, the judge points to Ch. Mariner Lil Sister Tempo (Sissy for short), a buoyant golden retriever. She's pronounced the No. 1 retriever bitch, a term one could never use on air in reference to Olympic figure skaters.
Backstage, Hilliard, a former rhythmic gymnast, breathlessly interviews Sissy and her handler, just like she did a day earlier in Los Angeles, where she covered the women's NCAA gymnastics tournament for CBS.
The Hounds group has the jitters. The boom camera and lights throw off their preening strides. One contestant, a powerful Rhodesian ridgeback, balks, walks, balks again. Gazing apologetically into his handler's eyes, the ridgeback relieves himself on camera.
A collective "ugghhh!" arises in the TV mobile unit, crowded with producers, directors and technicians. "Oh no, is that a disqualification?" someone asks.
At times, the "Olympic paradigm" that Gerber speaks of doesn't apply.
In this testy moment, the show-dog circuit's proud nature rams full speed into television's hunger for a good story. More than pride is at stake here: An owner may spend $100,000 campaigning a dog at shows across the country. Hefty breeding fees rest on a dog's winning reputation. The dog show manager, an elfin man with shaggy hair, charges into the mobile unit and announces that the ridgeback's handler is threatening to yank the dogs he's showing if the offending scene is not erased.
No problem, says Animal Planet's Will Schwarz, the show's Baltimore-based executive director. Everyone signed a release to allow coverage, but hey, no sense in embarrassing the dog.
The Working Group is also agitated by the boom and the glare. Schwarz begins to worry that the cameras will hinder competition. So does Cavanaugh, who, at ringside, expresses his concern via wireless mike: "If that bull mastiff wants to leave the lady with the pink dress and bite you, it's gonna happen!"
Thankfully, it doesn't.
Leading up to the actual show coverage, Hilliard and a small television crew had wandered the floor in search of "featurettes."
They found Kitty Burke, a professional handler from New Hampshire who attends 130 dog shows a year. The night before, Trans World had followed Burke as she left a dog show in Old Dominion, Va., and traveled to Baltimore in a motor home and trailer packed with dogs. As Burke sprinted from one preliminary contest to another, showing a basset hound, Tibetan spaniel and Samoyed, the camera crew stayed close behind, and at one point were admonished by a judge for following Burke and her dog into the ring.
Hilliard and crew also did a spot on funny dog names, like Little Whim Bebopping Boogie (while being forewarned that some dog owners have no sense of humor about such things) and another on the show's huge grooming area, where, pre-show, dog beauties are trimmed, washed, blow-dried, combed, beribboned and spritzed with hair spray.
They found Mitch Gyson, a Baltimore painter of pooch portraits who sat with his easel by the main ring. His work starts at $400. "Start painting, Mitch," Hilliard's crew instructed. "Action!"
By 8 p.m., a Best-in-Show dog is chosen. Now, Trans World will take the show footage to New York, where it will be edited and de Varona and Cavanaugh will do voice-overs. There is less than two weeks' time before the TV show's May 3 air date.
In its finished form, the Animal Planet's dog show is a triumph of faux live coverage. De Varona and Cavanaugh's running commentary blends easily with show-ring action, and Cavanaugh's expertise is a welcome foil for de Varona's unfamiliarity with breed criteria.
Tomorrow's segment includes a surgeon who judges shows on weekends, non-competitive canines that comfort the elderly and rescue dogs.
And lest you miss the program's Olympic roots, it is hailed in sonorous tones as "The Trail to the Eukanuba Cup," a reference to the competition's grand prize to be presented next year.
So who won Best in Show at Baltimore? The great Pekingnese? The super Bouvier? The standard white poodle that's been shooting the lights out?
Tune in tomorrow night.
Animal Planet's "National Dog Championships" will air in four segments on cable channels 61 and 48. The final show site has not been picked.
From Baltimore: 8 to 9: 30 p.m. tomorrow; repeated Saturday, 9 to 10: 30 p.m.
From Houston: currently scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23.
From Phoenix: currently scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 6.
Pub Date: 5/02/98