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Social capital: purpose or just a slogan?

Originally published in Current, June 11, 2001
By Karen Everhart Bedford

The buzzword "social capital" has acquired lots of different meanings within public television as PBS and its member stations speculate whether and how they will be viable in the digital media environment. What will it really mean for public television to "build social capital," as system leaders propose, by producing certain kinds of local programs and services?

Before Robert Putnam's 1995 article and subsequent book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, social capital was largely an academic term for the social connections between individuals that prompt activism and confer benefits on their communities. Putnam's description of our country's eroding civic life resonated so broadly that "social capital" has become something of a catch-all phrase for what we're missing.

Building social capital is not only a good thing for public TV to do, Putnam said, but it's also essential for its future. Pictured: Putnam at PBS Annual Meeting, June 2001.
Public TV leaders have seized on the concept as a tonic to reverse PBS's sagging audiences and membership numbers. Putnam spoke at last September's PBS Development Conference and is being brought to the lectern for the PBS Annual Meeting this week in Philadelphia. Early this year, PBS made social capital the keystone of its strategic plan. "Leveraging our content to build social capital" is the top priority of its three-year plan.

But the objective is being touted in so many contexts—capital fundraising, digital program planning, membership and image-making—that it's unclear what kinds of changes would be required at stations and PBS.

Leading pubcasters who have pondered public TV's best prospects for digital broadcasting appear to agree that PBS's strategy is right in line with the field's traditional mission. But actions proposed to advance the strategy are incremental, ambiguous or even contradictory. Station execs and knowledgeable advisers agree that stations must extend their local connections in new and significant ways.

The media-hub concepts adopted by Connecticut PTV, WHYY in Philadelphia and WTTW in Chicago in the late 1990s are exemplars of the change that many see ahead for public television. Stations as diverse as WVIZ-TV in Cleveland and KACV in Amarillo, Tex., now are headed down similar paths to re-align themselves and build community ties; but they've incorporated social capital concepts into their own planning efforts.

Though Putnam identified commercial entertainment media as major contributors to declining social capital in American communities, he does believe that media can be part of the solution. "I say in the book we have to figure out how to use the exceptional power of television to engage in some jujitsu, and have it be part of the solution instead of the problem."

Putnam said he's "pretty up-to-date" on PBS's plan to align itself with his cause. "As I listen to the debate inside of PBS and CPB about social capital, I think there are several different takes that people have on the problem. Some I agree with, and some I don't."

"For some, I think the issue is using social capital as a new slogan," he said. "From my point of view, that won't have any significant payoff at all. I'm saying that this is the beginning and not the end of the story."

"Re-labeling" public TV's community-based work won't bring "a lot of gain," nor will "drilling deeper" into the pool of social capitalists who already watch PBS, the Harvard public-policy professor said.

"I think public television has an absolutely vital interest in rebuilding the reservoir of social capital in America—not just because it's a good thing to do, but also because it's essential to their future," Putnam added. But the strategy has to involve "thinking outside the box about how to blend electronic forms of communication with other forms of communication to widen the circle of people interested in community affairs.

"The public broadcasting community in America will help itself if it helps to solve the problems I've identified in declines in social involvement," Putnam continued. "If they can figure out ways to get people to engage in community life, that will solve their problems because those kinds of people will be involved in public television. But if public broadcasters were to figure out some short-cut to re-label themselves, it will not solve their problem, and it will not solve my problem."

It's more than mission

The first Carnegie Commission report in 1967 didn't use the words "social capital" when it defined public broadcasting's mission, but the role it described for the field is precisely about the civic engagement that Putnam seeks to revive, Richard Somerset Ward commented. Ward, a TV producer who is also a senior fellow at the Benton Foundation, wrote about changes already under way at some public TV stations in Digital Gift to the Nation, a recent report by Newton Minow and Lawrence Grossman (earlier article).

Carnegie I "expected and wanted" public television stations to have deep relationships with their local communities, Ward said. "That hasn't happened largely because there's not enough money to make it happen. There's been no real compulsion on public television to work with the community." Until now, that is.

"Social capital is arriving on scene at exactly the right moment for public broadcasting," Ward continued. The field "needs that philosophical justification in order to play a new role, when it's quite clear that its old role will not be valuable in a few years." The concept of social capital is a "valuable framework for the change that needs to happen" within public television.

As Ward sees it, public TV has to profoundly re-orient itself if it is to meet the challenges of digital and contribute to this larger civic movement. Stations have to become "the hub of community alliances in every community in the country" using digital TV and web technologies.

"This is what we have been waiting for the last 35 years," Ward added. "Here is a way for stations to really play a role in their communities, and their communities will respond once they see how public broadcasting can help them."

Like Putnam, Ward described public TV's emphasis on branding as a hindrance to establishing these connections.

"What a public TV station has to do is subsume its identity into that of its own community, which is exactly the reverse of what stations have been trying to do for the last 10 years, at least." Aggressive branding "is exactly what will stand in the way of a public TV or radio station being effective in its community."

What community-based institution—libraries, museums or historic associations—are going to partner with their local station if every bit of content coming out of that alliance carries the dominant brand of the station? he asked.

"It's a very difficult idea to propose at the moment because we've become so used to believing that we have to have this aggressive brand," Ward acknowledged. "I strongly contend that we don't, and getting rid of it is the one way we can become part of the creation of social capital."

Others suggest that the national PBS brand has to cede its dominance so that Stations can cultivate stronger local identities. Programming not only needs to be localized, but "branded as belonging to the local community station," said Bill Marrazzo, president of WHYY in Philadelphia. WHYY's digital business concept is to create "civic space" in which audiences see the public TV and radio outlet as "more than a channel choice." The stations must be perceived as "facilitators of community discussion on issues of concern to everybody in our market."

"If all we want to be is a decent television choice—as good as we are, we won't be good enough to overcome the number of channel choices the public has—forget about how many they will have," Marazzo explained.

Marazzo called for pubcasting outlets to reorganize themselves around content and services—rather than the technological focus of traditional broadcasting. At the Philadelphia station, the content areas are early-childhood learning, college telecourses, workplace training, regional public affairs and regional culture, and "wider horizons" (WHYY's services for adults over age 50). It distributes this content through the whole range of electronic media.

"When it's all strung together, we brand ourselves as WHYY, an enterprise to help members find all kinds of learning and entertaining experiences that make life richer in the Delaware Valley."

Content for social capitalists

In its strategic plan, PBS described its new target audience as "social capitalists"—the 24 million American adults who vote, attend PTA meetings, visit museums or engage in some range of civic or cultural activities. About 37 percent of these folks already watch public TV, but only 16 percent support their local stations, according to PBS's preliminary research.

PBS has commissioned additional research that will "segment media users based on their tendency to build social capital in their communities," explained Lesli Rotenberg, PBS's senior v.p. of brand management. The purpose is to figure out what most interests this audience so that PBS can determine how to communicate effectively with them.

"We have to be careful of really classifying a group of people," Rotenberg acknowledged. "If we use [the research] to help us figure out the best ways to target messages that will reach the people who are most likely to do something in their communities, that's positive, and that's why we're here."

"This needs to be a real national/local initiative. It can't be one versus the other," commented Rotenberg. "We'll have more impact as a system if our efforts are focused and national and local institutions complement each other and work at full capacity."

That national/local thang

David LeRoy of TRAC Media Services, who two years ago began speaking about social capital and making the case for public TV to foster "civil society," agreed that social capitalists already watch public television. "The irony is that participatory social capitalists don't have a lot of time for television, but they like public television."

LeRoy believes that public TV's programs don't have to change substantially to meet this new social-capital standard. But stations have to develop new ways to "be local and on the ground and touch people" (commentary by David and Judith LeRoy).

"My rant right now is that public television has to professionalize outreach," added LeRoy. Someone needs to "put the paint brush in the kid's hand, and put the kid in front of the house of the old lady whose house needs to be painted."

A local/national approach to delivering content or services is a keystone of the PBS strategy, and several sources strongly endorsed it. "PBS, in order to produce a national service that is genuinely distinctive and different from anything else in this country, has to be able to make much greater use of the local stations," Ward commented.

"It has to be easy for the smallest of us to localize those national programs in ways that are particularly relevant to our local community," Marrazzo said.

PBS has promised to deliver more series along the lines of On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying, a high-impact series that aired last fall with extensive local outreach and complimentary programs, as part of its new social capital emphasis. It also began systematically creating new openings for stations to insert local content into national programs, such as Egg: The Arts Show, Zoom and American Family, a continuing drama series that PBS plans to launch early next year. Life 360, a series debuting this fall, and Public Square, which is in development for early next year, will offer stations new opportunities to contribute to ongoing national programs.

Listening to communities

The instruction manual defining the local content and services that will sustain stations hasn't been written yet. Ward warned that the task of forging stronger community ties doesn't lend itself to formulaic solutions.

WVIZ-TV and WCPN-FM in Cleveland, which last fall announced plans to jointly establish a new public service media organization, last week launched a "listening project" with TRAC Media Services. The stations will convene nine community meetings this summer and conduct additional market research.

"The exercise of listening will define the content areas that we will pursue with the new public service media organization we are creating," said Jerry Wareham, WVIZ president. Although he senses that much of what the stations already are delivering is relevant to this new direction, there's a lot to learn about how Cleveland audiences would interact with the stations, and whether the formats, the language or the production techniques need to change. "We may discover whole new areas of programming to do in one or more multiple media."

KACV in Amarillo recently completed a similar planning process. The station convened five meetings with community leaders at which Station Manager Joyce Herring and David LeRoy delivered presentations on how public TV can help foster civil society.

Participants were "the people who make things happen" in Amarillo, Herring said. The objective was to put "these people in the room to talk about social capital and digital broadcasting as a way to rebuild the community." CPB funded the project: the materials created for it and the core presentation will be made available to stations serving small markets.

KACV has since sidelined plans for a local production so that its producers and publicists can work with a community-based foundation on teen pregnancy issues. The foundation, which backed the canceled show, identified teen pregnancy as a more pressing community need, and KACV will "help the community solve its problems" by joining the effort. Herring plans to assign a staff member to work full time on social capital issues, and she is spending more time making presentations and advising other stations as they develop their own plans.

"There's a lot of confusion when PBS talks about social capital," acknowledged Herring. "They're using it in their repositioning, branding and advertising, and I have no problem with that."

"But when you step back, we're talking about local civic engagement, and every market has a different application for what they're doing."


What's all this I hear about 'social capital'? by David and Judith LeRoy

Public Television in Civil Society, a website developed by TRAC Media Services, a site developed by Putnam's Saguaro Seminar on civic engagement






"Social capital is arriving on scene at exactly the right moment for public broadcasting," said Ward. The field "needs that philosophical justification in order to play a new role, when it's quite clear that its old role will not be valuable in a few years."


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