The well-coiffed Shih Tzus, Brittanys and Salukis invade Madison Square Garden this week for the 132nd running of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Doggie TV is booming; besides USA and CNBC's live coverage of the Westminster show, NBC airs The National Dog Show on Thanksgiving, and Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl has become as much a Super Bowl institution as bean dip. This year represents USA's 25th year covering the Westminster show; it averaged a tail-wagging 2.7 million viewers over two nights in 2007, a jump of 4% over the previous year.
A longtime dog breeder and handler, David Frei has hosted the Westminster show since 1990, and hosts the NBC program as well. The director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club, Frei has also done public relations for the Denver Broncos and ABC Sports. He chatted with B&C's Michael Malone about the show's allure, which of the 2,500 dogs in this year's contest might grab the crown, and whether his crowd ever gets tired of quips from the Best in Show film.
Why is the dog show so popular?
I think people are watching for three reasons. First of all, the competition—they want to see who's going to win. They're watching for the variety—169 different breeds and varieties. But I think most watch because of what I call the alma mater factor: I'm sitting there with my Brittany, watching the show. I want to see the Brittany, and I'm going to root for the Brittany. I'm gonna say, “Ya know, Ty, if I feed you a few less cookies, and maybe gave you a bath once a week instead of once a month, and we did a little roadwork, you and I could be out there, too, and you would win.”
What's different about this year's show?
We have four newly recognized breeds, so that will add a little something different. Other than that, we're pretty consistent about what we put out there.
Do you watch the Super Bowl, the World Series, and see elements that might work for the dog show?
We're trying to figure out a way to do ESPN GameDay—something like that would be fun. We're expanding what we do on our Website [westminsterkennelclub.org]. Four years ago we started to do the Breeds competition, which takes place during the day, on the Web. There's no way to do 169 breeds and varieties on live TV, so we streamed the highlights on the Web. When you're watching the sporting group live, you're only seeing the one Labrador Retriever that was best in breed. But on our Website, you can see all 51 of them. That gave us a huge jump in page views, but it also brought people from 140 different countries to the Website. I didn't even know there were 140 countries out there!
The show has been on cable for 25 years. Is it ready for broadcast TV?
It's six hours of live television—that's a long time to be on broadcast TV. But I think the last hour, where we're doing Best in Show, that's ready for broadcast TV. That's what it's all about to some people—see who's going to be America's dog for the next year.
Give us a dark horse to look for this year.
We've got four group winners coming back from last year, but I have a feeling it's gonna be a young dog that might come from off the charts. I'm a hound guy—I'm rooting for the hound because we haven't had a hound win since 1983. There's a beautiful big beagle out there named Uno, but some younger dogs that have been coming on strong might have a shot, too.
Do you get tired of jokes from Best in Show?
No! We take it as a compliment that people of that stature [Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, etc.] would do a satire on us. I think everybody in the dog show world went to that movie and said, “They didn't make fun of the dogs, they didn't make fun of the sport, they only make fun of the people”—and we kind of admit to being a target-rich environment in that respect. A lot of us said, I recognize that character, or I've had that argument with my wife over who was supposed to bring Mr. Bumblebee.
I actually carry the DVD around with me because we have so much fun with it. In our world we quote that like other people quote Caddyshack or Animal House. We can laugh at ourselves. As long as people aren't making fun of our dogs, we're OK.