Creative Arts Emmys: The Big Shorts Get Their Big Shot

Her Story - Still 1 - Angelica Ross and Christian Ochoa -H 2016
Courtesy of Tamea A./

An expansion of shortform categories gives shows from YouTube and other web outlets a better chance at an Emmy, bringing Hollywood validation — a nomination — to digital players beyond Netflix and Amazon.

During the past four years, Honest Trailers has become an online hit, racking up millions of views of its movie-trailer spoofs. On July 14, the YouTube series, produced by Defy Media, added an Emmy nomination to its stat sheet. A recent rule change allowed it to compete for an Emmy alongside such shortform variety series as Epic Rap Battles of History and Gay of Thrones — both also first-time nominees.

In March, the Television Academy announced it would expand its live-action shortform awards from two (entertainment program and nonfiction program) to five, adding a category for comedy or drama series and one each for actor and actress. The rules also clarified that a series is defined as having a season of six episodes — averaging 15 minutes in length — or more. The winners will be announced Sunday, Sept. 11, the second day of the newly split two-day Creative Arts Emmys ceremony.

Variety nominee Epic Rap Battles of History.

The rule changes set off a flurry of submissions in the digital world among dozens of shows. "Hopefully, it is inspiration to take the form seriously and show that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than putting a piece of bread on a cat's head and taping it," says Honest Trailers writer Spencer Gilbert.

Shortform (formerly short format) series have been recognized since 2008, when the Television Academy introduced the two original categories — a Battlestar Galactica featurette and History's Great Moments From the Campaign Trail won. But as part of its annual rules review this year, the academy discussed ways to expand awards for the format. "Look at the proliferation of the shortform content and the quality of content being produced — not only by Maker Studios or AwesomenessTV but even by your major studios," says TV Academy president Maury McIntyre. "This is the direction we decided to go with it, which is to acknowledge that there are genres within shortform."

McIntyre calls the categories of years past "nebulous" and says that by adding a few more specific categories and more specifically defining a shortform series actually helped make more digital companies aware of their eligibility. "We have specifically created categories that are — they're not exclusive to the digital format, but let's call them digital friendly," he adds.

The additions have opened up the Emmys to talents who might not have been recognized otherwise, such as Patrika Darbo, who is nominated for her work in the self-distributed web series Acting Dead. Comedy or drama series nominee Her Story, about the dating lives of trans and queer women, also was self-distributed and nearly entirely self-funded; executive producer Katherine Fisher points out it's the only independent project in its category, going up against Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital and Comedy Central's Hack Into Broad City. In fact, of the 25 live-action shortform nominations, 15 originally were distributed by a TV network, either online or on television. "When the category was announced, it was an exciting opportunity for a lot of independent series," says Fisher. "There is some disappointment that everything except one show is a network show or derived from one."

Comedy or drama nominee Childrens Hospital, which won twice before the shortform category expansion.

It can be expensive for independent producers to submit a series for Emmy consideration, let alone stage an awards campaign, which many of the nominees handled for themselves. But for Maker's Epic Rap Battles, having an outside awards consultant was helpful. "We didn't take a traditional approach to marketing it," says Courtney Holt, head of the Disney-owned digital studio. "Because it's such a creative art form, we have to do marketing that shows the depth of what it is."

Maker's campaign, which included billboards, was focused on "reintroducing" Epic Rap Battles and its stars, Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist, to the academy, many of whom Holt says have probably seen an episode in the six years that the show has streamed on YouTube. "It's one thing to have audience recognition, but industry recognition has eluded a lot of these creators," he adds. "It validates that this is a creative industry doing really cool stuff."

Comedy or drama nominee Hack Into Broad City.

McIntyre acknowledges that it can be hard to break into these new categories but says that as they gain awareness, he hopes to see more submissions, even suggesting categories could be expanded to allow for new formats or distribution methods. "Quite honestly, I see Snapchat as television, too," he says. "I don't know why that's not eligible. We are embracing that."

Here is the full list of live-action shortform nominees: 

Shortform Comedy or Drama Series
Childrens Hospital (Adult Swim)
Fear The Walking Dead: Flight 462 (AMC)
Hack Into Broad City (
Her Story (YouTube)
UnREAL The Auditions (Lifetime)

Actor in a Shortform Comedy or Drama Series
Rob Corddry (Childrens Hospital)
Rob Huebel (Childrens Hospital)
Lou Diamond Phillips (The Crossroads of History)
Oscar Nunez (The Crossroads of History)
Jack McBrayer (Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell)

Actress in a Shortform Comedy or Drama Series
Patrika Darbo (Acting Dead)
Erinn Hayes (Childrens Hospital)
Janet Varney (Everyone's Crazy But Us)
Michelle Ang (Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462)
Tracie Thoms (Send Me: An Original Web Series)

Shortform Nonfiction or Reality Series
A Year in Space (
Inside Look: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX Networks)
Jay Leno's Garage (
National Endowment For The Arts: United States of Arts (
Roots: A New Vision (History)

Shortform Variety Series
Epic Rap Battles of History (YouTube)
Gay of Thrones (
Honest Trailers (YouTube)
Making s Scene With James Franco (AOL)
Park Bench With Steve Buscemi (AOL)

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.