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Three of the four major broadcast networks, plus PBS and cable's CNN, gave away high-priced minutes of prime television time to the presidential candidates this fall, in an effort to produce more virtuous, issues-centered dialogue than is found in political advertisements, and more extensive comment than is found in 10-second network news sound bites.

CBS, NBC and Fox participated; ABC did not when its offer of an hour on election eve was rejected.With the experiment over, virtually everyone involved called it disappointing, but an experiment worth trying.

"This was an important first step," said Paul Taylor, a former newspaper reporter who founded the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition early this year to promote the project. The experiment did "improve the content and quality of discourse," he argued, but did not prompt a nightly dialogue or push the candidates to make news with their replies to each other.

And because most statements were broadcast during news programs, "where the politically interested already are," the free-time statements failed to reach new and larger audiences watching prime-time entertainment shows, Taylor said.

Ultimately, Taylor and his supporters hope that regularly scheduled free-time slots for candidates will reduce their need to raise money for television commercials, which in turn will reduce the influence of special-interest groups who contribute to the campaigns.

Only about 22 percent of registered voters even knew the free-time effort existed this fall, according to a review of the experiment by the Public Policy Center of the Annenberg School of Communication (based on a national random sample of 1,031 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent).

But in the same study, a content analysis of the candidates' statements found a smaller proportion of time devoted to attacking the opponent in the free-time statements than in their advertisements; more factual accuracy in these statements than in the advertisements or the claims made by Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in their two debates; a broader range of topics addressed than in the advertisements or the debates; and more time spent discussing health care and health insurance than in the advertisements or the debates.