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Emmys Embraces Digital Series With Short-Form Category Additions

Less than a decade ago, the TV biz scorned YouTube as a wasteland of user-gen effluvia at best and a haven for stolen content at worst. This year, the Google-owned vidsite could win an Emmy for one of its original shows. How’s that for second acts?

The TV Academy, in an explicit overture to internet content producers, has added categories honoring short-form scripted comedies or dramas, along with actor and actress awards beginning this year. Those expand on categories for short-form variety, nonfiction/reality and animation series. The changes are designed to make the Emmys a bigger tent for episodic series running 15 minutes or less per segment, a nod to the reality that younger viewers are gravitating to online shows and personalities instead of traditional primetime lineups.

“We love that this space is being validated by an authoritative body like the Emmys,” says Courtney Holt, executive VP and head of Disney Maker Studios. “To me it’s an acknowledgment of the caliber of quality programming we are producing.”

Contenders for the 2016 short-form Emmys ballot include a slew of digital-only series, more likely to be viewed on a smartphone than a television set. Those include Maker’s “Epic Rap Battles of History,” a long-running comedy mashup of imagined throwdowns from bygone eras; “Scare PewDiePie,” a spin on the reality genre starring YouTube megastar PewDiePie (26-year-old Felix Kjellberg) from Maker and Skybound Entertainment for YouTube Red; AwesomenessTV’s high-school drama “Guidance,” starring digital celeb Amanda Steele and Michelle Trachtenberg (“Gossip Girl”); and New Form Digital’s otherworldly “Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures,” produced in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop and distributed via Vimeo.

Digital newcomers see a golden chance for their best work to go toe-to-toe with broadcast and cable TV. Female-focused site Refinery29 is promoting “The Skinny,” a dark comedy about bulimia, as well as star-creator-director Jessie Kahnweiler, for consideration in the short-form scripted and actress categories. The series, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is executive produced by Wifey.tv’s Jill Soloway, Andrea Sperling and Rebecca Odes.

“It’s about getting recognition at a time when the industry is changing,” says Refinery29 chief content officer Amy Emmerich, formerly an exec with Vice Media, Scripps Network Interactive and MTV. “The story, the quality, the narrative is as good as anything you’ve seen on HBO.”

While such digital players as Amazon (“Transparent”) and Netflix (“Orange Is the New Black,” “House of Cards”) have been able to charge into TV-awards races with big-budget series, the Emmys’ short-form field presents a lower barrier to entry.

“I can’t compete with anything even close to a $100 million budget,” says Mia Goldwyn, chief content officer at StyleHaul, the fashion and lifestyle digital-media company owned by RTL Group.

Among StyleHaul’s Emmy submissions is “Relationship Status,” a social media-inflected dramedy set in New York and L.A., with a millennial-skewing cast including Shawn Ashmore (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”), Emma Bell (“The Walking Dead”) and Brant Daugherty (“Pretty Little Liars”). Produced with James Frey’s Full Fathom Five, the series of 10-minute episodes debuted on Verizon’s Go90 in April. “I’m very proud of it, and the caliber of acting in the series, especially given the budget level,” Goldwyn says.

The Emmy aspirations of digital debutantes is reminiscent of cable’s struggle for TV industry recognition a generation ago. The cable biz created the CableACE Awards before its programming was embraced by the Emmys and now dominates drama categories. “Our world is accelerating in dog years, unlike the 20 years it took cable to get recognized by the Emmys and Golden Globes,” Holt says.

The Internet has spawned digital-content awards like the Webbys and Streamys, which have carved out niches for themselves. But those are no match for the prestige of Hollywood’s big leagues.

“People like awards their parents understand. My mom will get it,” says Kathleen Grace, chief creative officer of New Form Digital, whose backers include Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Discovery Communications.

Meanwhile, some digital players are gunning for Primetime Emmys on TV’s traditional turf. In the TV movie category, Conde Nast Entertainment is submitting “Stop,” a nine-minute film about a black high schooler’s encounter with the NYPD stop-and-frisk policy (a Sundance official short selection) and Funny or Die is pushing “Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie” with Johnny Depp parodying an ’80s-era version of the bouffanted mogul.

“We didn’t see ‘Stop’ as a digital play. What platform it’s on originally doesn’t matter,” says CNE president Dawn Ostroff. “It’s representative of what our standards are, quality storytelling you would see on television or in film.”

Conde Nast Entertainment’s other two entries are in short-form: GQ’s “Most Expensivest Shit,” hosted by rapper 2 Chainz in the variety category, and “Cyborg Nation,” a Wired docuseries produced with Reddit in nonfiction/reality.

As far as plans to court Emmy voters, digital studios and networks are sticking with Internet channels — not DVD mailers, although Ostroff says CNE will send out discs for “Stop” just to be on the safe side — as well as select in-person screening events. For “The Skinny,” Refinery29 is looking at generating awareness on social media, including holding a Facebook Live session with creator-star Kahnweiler.

“You won’t see Jessie on a billboard. We want to stay true to the digital arena,” Emmerich says. (There’s also the fact that social media is free.)

An Emmy statuette might help digital distributors better monetize their winning programs. But for Ostroff, the real goal is to send a signal to the creative community about the kind of shows that are coming out of the digital domain.

“If the people in the business are giving you that stamp of approval, you can all of a sudden become a household name,” she says.

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