Animals & Money: What's the hottest dog show on TV?

Westminster Dog ShowThe Westminster Dog Show, which starts today, is no doubt the most glamorous and widely covered dog TV event in the country. But with all the new, more down-to-earth programming out there, it may be losing its status as the most important dog event in America, especially on TV.

Last year's broadcast of Westminster was an all-time record. But it still drew only 3.2 million people watching show on TV each night (up from 2.6 million in 2007) and another million watching online. Westminster isn't even the most popular dog show on TV. NBC airs the National Dog Show after the Thanksgiving Day Parade and gets 19.2 million people to watch. And it's taped ahead. In Reading, Pennsylvania.


Part of Westminster's problem is thatAmericans have become unsure about how much we like purebred dogs. An AP Poll showed Americans want President Obama to get a mixed breed by a 2-1 margin. We're inundated with stories of horrible conditions at puppy mills, more pets dumped off at shelters because of the recession, and three to four million American dogs and cats euthanized in shelters every year. Research is showing that breeding for appearance is diminishing dogs' mental abilities. In England the BBC film Pedigree Dogs Exposed documented how huge percentages of certain breeds now have genetic defects; animal charities pulled out and the BBC refused to broadcast it.

The National Dog Show faces all those problems. They're both are AKC shows, which judge dogs on how well they meet bred standards, not do anything fun like agility or dock jumping. Both are huge: 150 breeds, 2,000 dogs for the national; 170 breeds, 2,500 dogs for Westminster.

The National Dog Show has a few things going for it: it's right after the Macy's Parade on network TV; it has John O'Hurley (Mr. Peterman from Seinfeld) as one of the announcers; and it's edited down to two hours. Westminster airs six hours in prime time. (Even then, the bulk of Westminster action, the breed shows, are unaired during the day). Huge dog shows are like cricket matches: they're great fun for the people who go, but the American public doesn't want to watch them on TV.

Part of the problem for Westminster is just how ill-suited dog shows are for TV. Last year was a bit of an exception when Uno, the charismatic beagle won. Everyone loves a beagle. This year the Vegas odds-makers say it's more likely the kennel club will return to those boring obscure breeds that nobody gets excited about. Brussels Griffon or Sealyham Terrier, anyone? If the Westminster judges knew what was good for them, they'd be picking golden or Labrador retrievers.

Especially since we have more emotionally compelling entertainment. Dogtown, which is about the recovery and rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogs, did about as well as Westminster. Animal Precinct regularly draws 3.5 million viewers and it's sometimes so sad I can't watch it.

Puppy Bowl, broadcast during the Super Bowl, is the proverbial basket full of puppies broadcasters have long joked about running.

Shows that look at how dogs are fitting in with their families do great: It's Me or the Dog has 4 million viewers worldwide. The Dog Whisperer gets about a million people watching. And Cesar's show runs each week, so that's a more impressive number.

People are getting into shows where they can judge a dog's character and performance, like CBS' Greatest American Dog, which premiered with 9.5 million, or the Incredible Dog Challenge. To the average person, every dog in the ring at Westminster looks gorgeous or perfect; we basically can't distinguish between them because we don't know the elaborate breed standards the judges are comparing them to. But, we can figure out which dog jumps further in a pool or has a cooler routine catching Frisbees.

I expect to see dog entertainment on TV grow alongside our interest in dogs. And I think we'll see more shows that treat dogs the way we do--as family members, athletes, animals in need of rescue or even just goofy football players.

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