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US candidates win free TV

With suspicious alacrity, America's profit-driven commercial television networks have agreed to make an unprecedented gesture to the democratic process:free and uninterrupted airtime for the major presidential candidates in the run-up to the autumn election.

This week the last hold-out, ABC, fell into line with NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and the public broadcaster PBS, announcing that in the last week of the campaign it would make an hour of prime time available for a candidates' debate, unencumbered by a moderator, or a panel of journalists to filter questions.

ABC's rivals have put forward different formats. Most of them involve free one-to-five-minute slots in news and current affairs programmes, scattered over the final month before polling day on 5 November, both within and outside the 8-11pm prime-time period each evening when audiences are largest.

They all promise that other scheduled political coverage will not be reduced, which meaning that in Election 1996, America's television screens will be offering more politics than ever before, and that the major candidates, President Bill Clinton, almost certainly Bob Dole for the Republicans, and perhaps Ross Perot as nominee of his fledgling Reform Party, may be almost impossible to avoid.

The great innovation in political coverage from 1992, the viewer call- in show, seems certain to stay. In addition, four traditional televised debates are scheduled for September and October (three between presidential candidates, one between their running mates) as well as the standard news coverage, talk-show interviews and paid advertising spots. On top of this comes America's equivalent of the party political broadcast.

In good measure the innovation is a triumph for Paul Taylor, a former Washington Post journalist who resigned to launch a crusade for free and unfiltered television time in which viewers could listen to the candidates at length, instead of picking their way through soundbites whose median length of barely 8 seconds (24 words of average speech) is far exceeded by the excogitations of reporters and sundry pundits.

Mr Taylor could not have picked a better moment. Under attack for excessive violence and sex in their shows, the networks have seized a chance to prove their civic-mindedness. Rupert Murdoch's Fox network started the ball rolling in February and the others have since followed.