Securing the union, pumping up the volume, bowling in a league

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In the City of Brotherly Love, where the U.S. Constitution was written, Mitchell imagines a Declaration of Interdependence among public TV stations and PBS. (Photo: Steve Behrens.)

In the City of Brotherly Love, where the U.S. Constitution was written, Mitchell imagines a Declaration of Interdependence among public TV stations and PBS. (Photo: Steve Behrens.)

From the opening moments of its 2001 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PBS drew on the city’s role in U.S. history and a series of in-person presentations to foster pride and other warm fuzzies among 1,300 conference attendees.

In a spoof of Antiques Roadshow with actors as the founding fathers, APTS President John Lawson presented a letter by Alexander Hamilton to appraisers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. “We must secure our union on solid foundations — it is a job for Hercules,” Hamilton wrote. Lawson feigned amazement when the letter was deemed to be of “immense worth.”

For plenary sessions in a convention center ballroom, PBS put on highly produced shows, with musical performances, staged interviews, scripts rolling on multiple teleprompters and program-related stunts replacing many of the clip screenings of past years. Rock beats with pumped-up bass punctuated the sessions.

Susan Lacey, e.p. of American Masters, dressed as an Elvis impersonator to introduce a set by veteran Memphis rockers, hyping an upcoming profile of Sun Records. Producer David Grubin tested the memory of attendees in a demo of brain functions, to be explored more fully next winter in his five-part Secret Life of the Brain. And Nova boss Paula Apsell, promoting a future episode on “safe” cigarettes, took a drag from an electronic nicotine dispenser and said it felt like smoking a pager.

PBS President Pat Mitchell, the ringmaster, returned repeatedly to the designated theme of the conference, “PBS and You: Stronger Together.” Alexander Hamilton, she said, called for unanimity when the nation’s founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, and they agreed “to rededicate themselves to the idea that they were stronger together than they were apart.”

“And this is our time, PBS and You, the member stations we serve, to make significant progress towards an important purpose: identifying new ways to strengthen our services and strengthen our union,” she said.

Mitchell read a draft Declaration of Interdependence, proclaiming non-commercialism, universal service, relevance and unity as the core values of public broadcasting. She invited conference attendees to note their comments on bulletin boards (only a few did) and later to join her in signing the document. Music swelled, and she marched out of the room to sign it. Dozens of station people followed.

“The most civic room in America”

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, asked for a show of hands during his June 15 keynote address. How many pubcasters in the ballroom had attended a meeting on civic affairs in the past 12 months? Hands went up.

“Wow — this is an amazingly civic group.”

How many had served on a committee or led a civic-oriented organization?

“This is probably the most civic room in America,” he said, estimating that 80 percent of those sitting in the room had raised their hands.

Putnam summarized his research on America’s declining social capital–a problem that PBS increasingly is addressing in its planning (earlier article). Americans not only go to fewer public meetings but also dine together much less frequently than 25 years ago, he said. Trends in civic disengagement have measurable implications on school quality, crime rates and even personal health.

“Your risk factor for death will go down if you join a group,” he added. “Social isolation is as big a risk factor for death as smoking.”

“These changes matter a lot for public broadcasting. The public purposes you need to serve are hindered if people are not connected.” Putnam doesn’t like the label “social capitalists” that PBS uses to describe its new audience target, but he encouraged pubcasters to find ways to create “bridging social capital”–the kind that forges connections between people who are unlike each other.

“We require a national grassroots movement” to explore ways of strengthening communities by connecting the individuals within them, Putnam said. Public TV can contribute to this movement, but that will require a special commitment and new focus.

PBS’s strategy to build social capital can’t just be about more effective branding or pledge drives. “I’m trying to urge you to think of yourselves as producers of social capital,” he explained. Stations that effectively do that in their communities will see their donor bases go up, not because of marketing strategies they employ, but because people with high social capital “have a big sense of reciprocity.”


Earlier news: PBS adopts “social capital” building as a top priority.

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