The Candidates and Free TV

Good ideas have legs. When the Fox Network offered free TV time to presidential candidates a couple of months ago, it seemed a high-minded gesture from a rather unexpected source. But it was enough to start something.

In recent days, ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN have chimed in with their versions of the idea. PBS has also made a commitment to give candidates unfettered air time.

Most of the proposals (ABC is an exception) dance around the prime time (8 p.m. to 11 p.m., Eastern time) hoped for by reformers pushing hardest for free broadcast time. The reformers envision a future where voluntarily donated time, placed to maximize viewership and made available on a regular basis, will shrink the role of money in politics. That's still far off, but the networks' offers represent a heartening break from their former refusal to consider the idea.

The candidates' free minutes this year may come during dinner-hour news, during news-analysis shows, maybe even between sitcoms. Whenever, they should still help shift political discourse away from the negative campaign spots that reduce complicated issues to quick, emotional jabs.

Of course, two or three other parties in addition to the networks will have to make this experiment work. The candidates will have to prove they have something compelling to say. And the public will have to show it cares enough to listen.

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