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America's television network executives have come up with a rapid response - but precisely the wrong response - to the latest call for just a few free minutes of airtime for the presidential candidates of 1996.

ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and CNN rushed out with very similar offers last week after feeling the first twinge of pain (not guilt) inflicted by the first round of arm-twisting from a newly forged cluster of public interest lobbyist-luminaries. (Most Famous Free-Air Arm-Twister: Walter Cronkite.)Rupert Murdoch, czar of Fox TV, which has no national network newscasts, already has offered some free time for the candidates. What the major news networks - or, that is, the entertainment and industry moguls that now own these video news organizations - offered was bits of free time during their various newscasts or news-magazine shows this fall.

But hold your applause. Of course, you understand, these modest offers were extended grudgingly, and only because the profitable TV networks feared they would become the subjects of ridicule - perhaps even retribution (which is to say, regulation) - if they sat on their assets and did nothing. So they compromised by offering nothing that would cause them to give away a minute of their prime-revenue, prime-time entertainment minutes.