Emmys: Quibi Injects Fresh Competition Into Digital Shorts Races

Courtesy of Quibi
From left: '#FreeRayshawn,' 'Punk'd' and 'Dummy'

The previously unheralded categories are now awash with contenders thanks to the new mobile-video platform. But how will the startup fare against Disney, Netflix and HBO?

In 2011, the Emmys added two new awards to recognize the programming that had begun to proliferate on platforms like YouTube but had significantly shorter run times than most TV shows. The short-format Emmys got off to a slow start, with just four nominees filling out the categories.

The digital video business has exploded in the decade since, and the short-form Emmys (as the categories were renamed in 2016) have expanded into five live-action categories to reflect the torrent of eligible new shows. The categories have remained less competitive than their traditional TV counterparts, but that could change this year as a cadre of deep-pocketed platforms join the Emmy race with contenders that seem far less beholden to the 30-minute or 60-minute formats that once defined the television landscape.

Leading the way is Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman's fledgling mobile-video service, which has been slow to catch on with subscribers despite flooding the market with big-budget, star-studded original series — all less than 10 minutes per episode. The company has submitted more than 20 shows across all five short-form categories (plus a couple of others). Among the contenders it hopes to see nominated are actors Anna Kendrick (for comedy Dummy) and Stephan James (for drama #FreeRayshawn) and variety series Punk'd.

"It would be amazing for Quibi if there was a nomination or win for any of its shows, because then people might start to discover those shows more," says Dummy creator Cody Heller, who based the show on her real-life experience learning about partner Dan Harmon's sex doll. She originally developed Dummy at TBS before taking a chance on the startup platform, which launched April 6 with a 90-day free trial.

For many established creators, Quibi's pitch — big paychecks for scaled-down episode lengths and full rights to the project after seven years — hit the bull's-eye. "The sheer opportunity to try something absolutely new and untested was an adventure I couldn't turn down," says Veena Sud, who created Quibi thriller The Stranger, which has been submitted for consideration in three categories, including short-form comedy or drama series.

Though fellow streaming newcomers Disney+ and HBO Max are focused on producing traditional-length shows, they, too, have populated their slates with a variety of formats, especially to capture the shorter attention span of younger audiences. Disney+ has three shortform projects in contention this year, including nonfiction series One Day at Disney Shorts and two that fall in the short-form animated program category. HBO Max, meanwhile, will go head-to-head with other shortform variety series with The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo.

Snapchat has 10 shows up for consideration, including Will From Home, which was produced and released during the coronavirus pandemic, docuseries While Black with MK Asante and scripted series Two Sides

Netflix and Amazon Studios also are expected to compete in these categories with shortform spinoffs of other shows. Dressing Funny with Tan France and Deep Cuts with Hasan Minhaj stream on YouTube and serve not only as stand-alone series but also as promotion for Queer Eye and Patriot Act, respectively.

Posting clips and bonus material on social media has "benefited the show tremendously," Minhaj says, explaining that some of Patriot Act's most successful work — like a recent piece on George Floyd that has 4.2 million YouTube views — won't be found in any of the full-length episodes. With Deep Cuts, Minhaj brings viewers into the studio during the audience Q&A he conducts between takes. "Deep Cuts allows audiences at home to take a peek behind the curtain and see what things are like if you were to come to a taping," he says, adding that "it's an opportunity for me to show a different side of my personality."

Amazon has employed a similar strategy. On Short Cuts, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn go on adventures — croissant-making or fencing lessons in Paris — in between shooting competition series Making the Cut. "We think of it as a value-add for the viewer, especially the people who are huge fans of Heidi and Tim," says executive producer Sarah Rea.

Though the race might be more crowded this year, digital veterans largely welcome the new entrants. Funny or Die CEO Mike Farah, whose outfit has shortform variety series Under a Rock With Tig Notaro in addition to projects for Quibi (Flipped) and Netflix (Between Two Ferns: The Movie Uncut Extended Interviews) calls it "hugely important" that there's a place for digital-first shows to be given their due: "It recognizes consumer habits that are even more legitimized than they were five or six years ago."

A version of this story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.