Writers Going Paperless

Nov 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The enduring image of sitcom writers sitting on lumpy couches, scribbling on dog-eared, ink-smeared scripts has been partly erased at one television show.
The 13 writers on ABC’s “According to Jim” now use wireless tablet computers while sitting on those lumpy couches.
Jeffrey Hodes, co-executive producer and a head writer on the show, took an innovative step this season to save time and paper by switching to electronic scripts. The show is in its third season on ABC, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
Mr. Hodes turned the show’s writing world upside down this summer when he supplied digital writing tablets to the writing staff, replacing the roughly 290,000 sheets of paper the show used each season.
It’s one of the first such efforts to use technology on a prime-time show to create a paperless, all-digital writing environment. While prime-time TV writing hasn’t traditionally been a hotbed of technological exploration, Mr. Hodes hopes other shows will follow suit.
Motion Computing, in partnership with technology providers Microsoft and Intel, donated the computerized tablets, which are spiral notebook-size and allow pen or keyboard input. The tablet is heavier than a script but lighter than a laptop, Mr. Hodes said. It’s about the size of a script at 81/2 by 12 inches.
Mr. Hodes shepherded the project this summer after noting about a year ago that most of the equipment used to shoot the show over the past few years had advanced, except in the writing realm.
“We edit digitally, we shoot on HD cameras, the show is broadcast in HD,” he said. “So I was looking at all this stuff, and here we are at the beginning of the 21st century and the average sitcom staff goes through tons of paper. And when you work late at night and see the cleaning crew haul out all these papers, it’s completely wasteful.”
Unfortunately, writers can no longer make paper airplanes out of their scripts or play script basketball. But they can do everything else with a digital script that they once accomplished with paper pages, Mr. Hodes said.
“I wanted the writers to be looking at what they normally would look at,” he said. Writers can view a page vertically or horizontally, with two script pages side by side.
The digital scripts are instantly broadcast to each writer’s computer. That’s where the time-saving comes in. Copies no longer must be made and distributed to each writer after rewrites, he said.
“When we finish a rewrite, the new version is immediately wirelessly broadcast to all the writers’ tablets,” he said. “If I’m running the room, my boss, our [executive producer], can send me his notes in his script in his handwriting,” Mr. Hodes said.
Such efficiencies can save about a half-hour a day.
“So a half-hour is a half-hour I can build into the show for other responsibilities, or it’s a half-hour to get home sooner to the kids,” he said.
The new whiz-bang tools have an environmental impact. Last year 28 episodes of “According to Jim” were produced using a little less than 300,000 sheets of paper. At $2.60 per 500-sheet ream, the cost savings is about $1,500-a drop in the bucket for a TV show. But saving the mountains of paper is a worthy environmental cause, Mr. Hodes said. He said use of the tablets won’t result in a staff reduction.
While the project has been well received at “According to Jim,” Mr. Hodes said the measure of success is whether other shows adopt the process.
Yvette Lee Bowser, the executive producer of UPN’s “Half and Half,” said she’s interested in checking out the technology. She planned to meet with Mr. Hodes last week to learn more.
“I think everybody in television is trying to streamline the process in as many ways as possible,” she said.
Cost will be a factor, but she said she may purchase the tablets herself if she likes what she sees. Her writing staff of 10 already makes edits on a computer, but the tablets would further reduce the number of scripts that must be printed, she said.
“It does cut down on paper being wasted and does help tremendously with efficiency. And oftentimes there is a delay when directors and actors get the scripts at night, because photocopy and assembly takes time,” she said.
Motion Computing said a tablet PC costs about $2,000.
“If writing staffs could work into their budget to buy this technology, imagine how much paper they would save,” Mr. Hodes said. “If we did 290,000 sheets of paper, imagine every show across town, saving paper, saving time. Imagine dramas. They go through more papers than comedy.”
The return on investment comes in increased productivity and better use of time, he said.