Originally created 11/22/04

NBC's Thanksgiving Day is going to the dogs

NEW YORK - Thanksgiving is all about family, turkey and football on TV. Don't let Fido get his paws on the remote, however.

After two years of surprising success, NBC will present its coverage of the National Dog Show Thursday at noon, directly after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. John O'Hurley (J. Peterman in "Seinfeld") is back behind the microphone.

"The first time, it was a novelty," said Jon Miller, NBC senior vice president. "The third time makes it a tradition."

The two-hour special is made up of highlights from the dog show sponsored by the Philadelphia Kennel Club two weeks ago, mixed with information about dog breeds and tips for dog owners presented by the chief sponsor, Nestle Purina Pet Care.

Miller is a big fan of the movie, "Best in Show," a spoof of dog shows directed by Christopher Guest. He saw it soon after it was released in 2000, and started making calls the next day.

"It was like one of those little light bulbs that went off: 'We should do a dog show! And Thanksgiving would be the perfect time to do it!'" he recalled.

He immediately found out that Westminster, the year's premiere dog show based in New York, was locked into a long-term TV contract (with USA Network). So he turned to the Philadelphia Kennel Club.

The club held its first show in 1879, which is second only to the Kentucky Derby as the country's oldest sporting event, but it was somewhat down on its luck.

It's a "benched" show, meaning dogs are displayed on risers for the public to see, and this format has been in a long, slow decline in popularity. Only six still remain, and many dog enthusiasts avoid them, said Wayne Ferguson, head of the Philadelphia Kennel Club.

Ferguson's club had considered television a way to get attention, and its show was seen on ESPN for two years. Still, it jumped at the chance for a wider platform with NBC and Purina.

When the ratings came in after the first Thanksgiving broadcast in 2002, executives had to rub their eyes to be sure they were seeing straight. The show had done much better than anyone had anticipated.

And it grew the next year. An average of 9.7 million viewers watched last year, or 16 percent more than in 2002, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's more than double the audience NBC usually gets for soap operas at that time.

"If you're sitting in grandma's house waiting for the turkey and you don't like football, you're likely to tune into the dog show," Ferguson said.

The entire family can enjoy it, particularly those with dogs, he said. Since the National Dog Show is open to anyone with an American-bred dog who wants to come to Philadelphia, people can easily imagine their own animal in competition, he said.

The attention has rapidly revived Ferguson's club. The show was down to 750 entrants in 2000, and this year had 2,100 dogs in the competition, he said.

"When you watch some other shows it's like an insider's thing," said Michael Crawford, Purina's vice president of marketing. "With this show we wanted to make it for more people, to keep the pace up. It's really not meant to be a dog show but entertainment."

Purina will help produce a segment on caring for pets as they age, and has helped NBC with vignettes on particular breeds and on how a dog show works.

And O'Hurley will try to keep the proceedings light.

With "Best in Show" as motivation, there's a fine line to be walked between making fun of dog show participants and having fun with them.

"The 'Best in Show' movie is implanted in every show person's head," Ferguson said. "I know at least five real people for all the characters in that movie - and I say that affectionately."

He has no problems with the way the show has handled things.

Purina has also been surprised and pleased with how well the show has done, and last year locked into a multiyear extension of its sponsorship deal with NBC.

"I think we've got a good thing by the tail now," Crawford said.

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