Man’s–and NBC’s–Best Friend | @jlafayette

With ratings as big as a great dane, NBC’s annual broadcast of the National Dog Show has proved to be as much a hit on Thanksgiving Day as turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie.

The show, which follows the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, drew a 4.9 household rating in its noon to 2 p.m. ET time slot last year, attracting 19.3 million total viewers. That’s up from 2011, when it had a 3.3 rating and 18.1 million viewers.

Last year, NBC began replaying the telecast, hosted by John O’Hurley, in primetime, where it drew a 3 household rating at 10 p.m. Friday—not too late to reach Black Friday weekend shoppers.

In addition to key sponsor Purina, retailers are a big part of the advertising mix during the dog show. Those retailers can’t advertise during the parade because of Macy’s exclusive relationship with the annual celebration in Manhattan’s Herald Square.

At a time when ratings for most broadcast programming are declining, viewership of the National Dog Show has remained consistent over the years. But while NBC pretty much knows what to expect these days, the performance was a big surprise in 2002, when the telecast was just a pup.

No Mere Dog and Puppy Show

The idea for the National Dog Show was unleashed by Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network. In January 2002, Miller’s wife brought home a DVD of the film Best in Show, and they watched with friends. “We thought it was hysterical,” Miller recalled of the howlingly funny Christopher Guest mockumentary sendup, and thoughts of putting a dog show on TV started yelping in Miller’s head.

The next day at work, he asked an intern to research the second-oldest U.S. dog event after the famous Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which is televised by NBC’s cable cousin USA Network. The intern came back with the news that, in fact, Westminster was the second oldest show and that the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s competition was the grand-doggy of them all. Miller called the head of the Philadelphia Kennel Club out of the blue to talk about putting the show on TV. “He was speechless to say the least,” Miller said.

Miller’s bosses at NBC also scratched their heads. Dick Ebersol, then chairman of NBC Sports, “almost threw me out of his office,” Miller said. “He looked at me like I had five heads and said, ‘What do you mean you want to put a dog show on NBC? That’s crazy. You’ll get killed.’”

Miller was able to explain that he intended to run the dogs after the Thanksgiving Day parade. Ebersol made a phone call to NBC’s Entertainment division, which was getting a 1 rating with reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life in that time slot.

Once NBC brass embraced the idea, Miller made a deal with the Kennel Club, which agreed to let NBC call the event the National Dog Show. He also reached out to Purina, which had been blocked from participating in the Westminster show because of the event’s relationship with Pedigree brand pet food.

Miller watched the inaugural 2002 show from his wife’s family’s home in Canton, Ohio. The next morning, he got a call from Ebersol, who told Miller to expect to get a phone call from NBC’s then-CEO, Jeff Zucker.

“I thought, this is not a good thing if the president of the company is calling me,” Miller said. “Obviously, you screwed up.”

Zucker rang. “Do you have any idea what the dog show did yesterday?” Miller recalled Zucker asking. “I said, ‘Research told us it might do a 1½. I’m hoping it did at least that,’” Miller said. “He told me it did a 7 rating. He said it was tremendous.”

Ever since, the National Dog Show has grown into a good business for NBC. Advertising revenue during the broadcast has nearly doubled to $8.4 million in 2012 from $4.4 million in 2008, according to Kantar Media.

NBC has also started to put parts of the show it can’t televise online, so that dog lovers can see the judging of each of the 187 breeds entered in the show.

It’s also good for Purina. “To be involved in a highprofile show on Thanksgiving Day, when people are watching in their homes with their family, and usually with their pet, is a huge opportunity for anyone in the pet industry,” said Jill Meyer, senior brand manager at Purina. “We look at it as a very big deal. It’s something we get behind and get excited about each year.”

Purina has all the event’s touch points covered, with commercials and vignettes on TV reinforcing the theme “Pets and People Are Better Together.”

Meyer declined to say how much Purina spends to sponsor the National Dog Show, “but as far as what we feel we get out of it, we feel it’s a great partnership and it’s worth it to us.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.