What once was called a “crazy idea” is now most likely a Thanksgiving Day tradition in your house. It’s called the National Dog Show Presented by Purina.

But just 10 years ago, the brass at NBC barely thought it viable as a holiday broadcasting option. In fact, one executive said, “We’re not going to do a dog show.” But Jon Miller, now president of programming for NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network, and his team knew that dog show popularity was climbing steadily. Plus, NBC was “very supportive of new ideas” at the time, he says, taking some pretty big leaps in programming.

Tuning in to watch the National Dog Show, with co-hosts David Frei and John O’Hurley, has become a Thanksgiving Day tradition for millions of American families. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Miller managed to convince management that a dog show would at least get the same ratings as the network’s traditional airing of the Jimmy Stewart classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

However, it did much better than that – almost five times better. A projected 1.5 overnight rating turned into a 7 that very first year.

Before the broadcast was given a green light, Miller’s team contacted the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s Wayne Ferguson to ask if the club’s show had ever been aired on TV. Ferguson responded with: “Is this a joke?” He had a hard time imagining that a big-three network would want to broadcast one of the oldest dog shows in American history. But NBC wasn’t joking.

Miller says NBC already had a “pretty good relationship with the folks at Purina, so reached out to Michael Crawford, then Purina’s chief marketing officer. He asked, “If we did do a dog show, would you be interested in sponsoring it? Crawford didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.”

The dog-food giant committed to be the show’s sponsor, and with the kennel club’s buy-in, the National Dog Show Presented by Purina was born.

The main hall at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pa., is the location where more than 160 breed and variety winners are selected that go on to compete in the televised Group and Best in Show competition. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Seventeen to 20 million people tune in each year, and the three partners now have agreements to continue the broadcast for more than another decade. “It’s become a family holiday tradition,” Miller says. “This is the kind of show that three generations can sit down and watch together, to learn about dogs, to see their own dogs in the show. People think it’s been around 20 or 25 years. That’s a testament to its‘watchability.’”

Miller says that the naysayers in 2002 now “can’t believe how successful it’s been and how it grows every year. It’s far exceeded our expectations. It’s still the only dog show on broadcast TV and has double the ratings of any other dog show.”

On a personal note, he adds, “My hope is that my grandchildren will be able to sit around with their kids and watch it, and say, ‘My granddad helped create that show.’”