Emmys: Original Digital Shorts Face Long Odds

Courtesy of Funny or Die; Abso Lutely Productions
Among the shortform series in the race are a 'Transparent' companion series, 'Saved by the Bell'-themed 'Zack Morris Is Trash' and Megan Amram’s Emmy satire 'An Emmy for Megan.'

Companion series, such as those based on hit shows like 'Better Call Saul,' have been dominating the shortform categories: "It's rewarding derivative IP," says one critic of the trend.

Online video startups cheered the Television Academy’s 2016 decision to clarify the rules around its shortform awards (for episodes that run 15 minutes or less) and expand the field from two categories to five, calling the move a boon to digital-first productions. But after two years of nominations in which independent productions took a backseat to flashy digital series from established media companies and big-name talent, some in the digital community are advocating for a change.

In 2017, four of the five projects nominated in the shortform comedy or drama series category were companion series to existing TV shows, including Comedy Central’s Hack Into Broad City and winner Los Pollos Hermanos Employee Training, based on characters in AMC’s Better Caul Saul. Similarly, the previous year, only one nominated shortform comedy or drama, Her Story, was not affiliated with a linear brand. 

“The vast majority of shows that have been recognized by the Emmys are shows that are connected to some sort of linear, recognizable brand name,” notes Jake Avnet, the chief operating officer at digital studio Indigenous. “A lot of the shows that are really spectacular in the shortform world aren’t necessarily getting viewership among the people voting for the Emmys, I suspect.” Echoes another digital executive, “It’s rewarding derivative IP. Just because you don’t have name-brand recognition, you don’t get the vote. It’s kind of a bummer.”

Several insiders posit that Academy voters aren’t bothering to watch all the shortform submissions, especially those with obscure names and talent, and instead vote for the projects or actors that they recognize. It doesn’t help digital’s cause that these indie studios rarely have the money to stage pricey FYC campaigns, instead relying on word of mouth and social buzz. “The budgets for our entire series are in some cases the craft services budget for a show we’re competing against,” notes Adaptive Studios CEO Perrin Chiles, whose company has submitted several series this year. “We have to be innovative about how we market our series and raise awareness with the Academy.”

The Good Place writer Megan Amram pokes fun at the challenges of the shortform category with her new web series, An Emmy for Megan, which follows a fictionalized version of Amram as she sets out to fulfill the requirements to become Emmy eligible in the shortform series category. “There are so many web series that I feel like Emmy voters probably can’t watch every single one,” she says. “I hope that people in the Emmy voting pool find it in their hearts to think outside the box and maybe vote for someone who is not a celebrity yet.” Amram staged a slap-dash campaign for a win, including a June 10 unofficial screening at UCB and a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard.

Many digital producers contend that the TV Academy should split the shortform awards into more categories, separating comedy and drama, and introducing original and adapted categories, much in the way the Oscars screenplay awards are handled. It “might level the playing field out a little bit,” explains Dashiell Driscoll, the creator of YouTube series Zack Morris Is Trash, one of several series that Funny or Die is submitting this year.

While the digital community largely is still looking for Hollywood to give it its due, more established talent view the shortform categories as an opportunity for a different kind of recognition. Transparent star Amy Landecker, for instance, got her first directing credit last summer after she worked with Funny or Die on a companion series to the Amazon show, Transparent: The Lost Sessions, about the Pfefferman family’s visits to a therapist. “It would be a huge deal for me [to win an Emmy],” Landecker admits, in part because she’s never been individually recognized for her work on the parent show. She, too, is concerned with the need to promote her digital series, which features a number of Transparent stars, to voters, noting, “There’s so much incredible content that it’s hard to get seen.”

But Rob Hayes, who oversees digital content at NBC, which has dominated the shortform categories in past years with such nonfiction and variety series as Creating Saturday Night Live and Behind The Voice, argues that the best content always rises to the top eventually. “I’m a firm believer that really strong creative and really strong storytelling finds an audience,” he says. He believes the key to boosting awareness is moving the categories to the Primetime Emmys broadcast: “The question is: When does [shortform] move to the adults’ table?” 

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Shortform Standouts
A handful of the many shortform web series currently being submitted for Emmy nominations.

60 Second Docs (Outstanding Short Form Nonfiction or Reality Series)
Produced primarily for social media, this Indigenous Media-produced docuseries explores a different topic — from extreme couponing to unicycle football — in every minute-long episode. Notes Avnet: “The stories we’re telling are substantive.”

AKA Wyatt Cenac (Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series)
The former writer for The Daily Show created this series of shorts, in which he stars as a Brooklyn resident moonlighting as a crime-fighting vigilante, for First Look Media’s Topic.

An Emmy For Megan (Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series)
This project has only one purpose: Help Amram win an Emmy. But she acknowledges that it also was important that the series, filmed entirely in one day, “be funny aside from the joke of why I’m doing it.”

Minimum Wage (Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series)
This workplace comedy, centered around a struggling Koreatown burger joint, was produced by Issa Rae’s ColorCreative and Adaptive Studios for Urban Movie Channel. That it has an all-female writing staff was “very important this year,” notes Chiles.

Creating SNL (Outstanding Short Form Variety Series)
Developed by the team behind the long-running NBC variety show, this YouTube series gives fans an opportunity to see how the sausage is made. Episodes have included a behind-the-scenes look at the “A Kanye Place” sketch.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.