Hallmark Channel Has Gone to the (Hero) Dogs

JEREMY LEE/ALEXX HENRY STUDIOS, LLC/COPYRIGHT 2015 CROWN MEDIA UNITED STATES, LLC.
“I don’t think Howard and I would have made it past the second date had he not been as passionate about animals as I am,” says Stern, with co-host Denton and Glory, a female bloodhound who finds lost pets.

An animal programming push includes the heart-tugging Hero Dog Awards, co-hosted by Beth Stern (yes, wife of Howard), and a Kitten Bowl broadcast that draws as many viewers as one of the network's original movies.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Alot of bitches have strolled the red carpet at The Beverly Hilton over the years — but they don't generally get walked in on a leash.

On Sept. 19, the fifth Hero Dog Awards ceremony was taped at the hotel — also home to the Golden Globes, the Oscars Nominees Luncheon and about 150 other swanky events — and is set to air Oct. 30 on the Hallmark Channel. Picture a roomful of several hundred Beverly Hills society folk in designer gowns and black tie sipping champagne. Now picture their ankles being sniffed by a Chihuahua in a tuxedo collar and scads of other canine guests. "I absolutely love the idea of it," says Beth Stern, 43, Howard Stern's wife and, for the past two years, the show's co-host along with Desperate Housewives' James Denton. "I love recognizing these dogs and the important work they've done."

Launched in 2011 by the American Humane Association, the event is an annual competition that singles out dogs who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, whether saving cops, comforting war vets suffering from PTSD or offering a pair of eyes and ears to the sight- and hearing-impaired. Votes are cast by the public on the AHA website — more than 1.5 million were logged this year — resulting in eight finalists, who then are flown to Beverly Hills for a gala culminating in the announcement of the Hero Dog of the Year. It's soul-nourishing stuff, and Hallmark, a company still known mostly for schmaltzy greeting cards, has spun it all into a huge TV success.

"We wanted to give back," explains Hallmark Channel president Bill Abbott about the genesis of the program. "Animals are such a big part of people's families; we felt it was a natural extension of our brand to raise the profile of their plight." The strategy has paid off for the network, if not with huge audiences (last year's airing pulled only about 1.129 million viewers) then certainly with advertisers (yes, Petco, but also the likes of Subaru). So Hallmark has turned the initiative into a full-fledged franchise: There have been two Kitten Bowls, a Paw-Star Game (aired the same day as MLB's All-Star Game) and the upcoming Summer Kitten Games (set to air opposite the Rio Olympics). The company even has gone so far as to adopt its own corporate dog and cat (both named Happy and both residing in Hallmark's headquarters in Studio City). But, cautions Abbott, "We want to be cognizant we don't overplay our hand here."

"I have been 'Mr. Kitten Bowl' since its inception," says sportscaster John Sterling, who does play-by-play for Hallmark Channel’s Kitten Bowl, a mock football game aired in February opposite the Super Bowl and played by dozens of kittens (with names like William “The Litterbox” Purry), most of whom later are adopted.

Stern is the face of most of this animal-friendly programming. The former catalog model, a tireless animal-welfare advocate, was approached by the network in January 2014 to host its inaugural Kitten Bowl. "We had 90 kittens crawling all over me on a field," she recalls. "We got them all adopted." For Stern, it's a dream partnership, offering her a TV platform to raise awareness about cat and dog overpopulation that in turn allows her to find homes for the four-legged denizens of New York's North Shore Animal League, the world's largest no-kill rescue organization (she serves as its chief spokesperson and fundraiser).

Stern's commitment to animal res­cue doesn't end there. She estimates she personally has taken in more than 160 cats over the years, fostering as many as 19 at once at the Hamptons estate and Manhattan penthouse she shares with her husband, who boasts frequently of his wife's animal philanthropy on his SiriusXM radio show. "I love the cat-lady jokes," she says. "If that's what a crazy cat lady looks like, then here I am." He's the one, adds Beth, who names most of the stray cats who stay with them: "From our last crew, there was Bagel, Milkshake, Peapod and Cannoli," she says. "Howard must have been hungry when he thought of them."

Back in the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, nerves do not seem to have rattled most of the hopefuls vying for the big prize. Certainly not Glory, an arson dog trained to sniff out accelerants, or Dax, a strapping Rin Tin Tin-type who saved the life of his partner, Massachusetts police officer Chris Alberini. But if Hollywood loves anything, it's an underdog. So — spoiler alert! — you might want to keep an eye on the only shivering nominee, a 6-pound, one-eyed Chihuahua named Harley (see sidebar). He looks like a winner.

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