DURING a German political campaign that's lacked attention-grabbing moments - such as a head-to-head debate or a sax solo - one of the biggest stories in the run-up to Sunday's election has been the broadcast media itself.
Television coverage of the campaign has been widely scrutinized, and also criticized by some politicians and observers. They charge that some TV channels, public and private, have been less than objective during the campaign, blatantly favoring Chancellor Helmut Kohl. That has raised concern about the media's ability to influence the election.
Germany's two main parties, Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, are locked in a close duel to lead the nation's next government, according to public opinion polls. Those same polls also indicate that up to 15 percent of potential voters, enough to swing the election, still have not decided how to vote. In the last days of the campaign, the news media may play a crucial role in helping the undecided make up their minds.
``The media is playing its biggest role [in a campaign] ever in German history,'' said Peter Glotz, a Munich-based leader of the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD). ``It [the media] may not be decisive, but it is a big point.''
German law stipulates that television channels must provide equal access, but not equal time for the expression of different views. Most of the criticism about media bias has been directed against Munich-based mogul Leo Kirch, although the state-run ZDF channel also has been attacked for being pro-Kohl.
In the decade since the commercial television began broadcasting in Germany, Mr. Kirch has built up extensive television holdings. They include: a controlling interest in Sat 1, a private channel that has a 16 percent market share, and minority interests in several other television stations. His Kirch Group also owns a chunk of the Springer Group, which operates the mass-circulation Die Bild daily.
Kirch made his fortune by buying the rights to more than 15,000 movies. The Kirch Group also is involved in producing original programming for television.
Described by those who know him as friendly if somewhat of a ``Howard Hughes-like'' recluse, Kirch holds staunchly conservative views and reportedly is in frequent telephone contact with Kohl. He steadfastly refuses to grant interviews.
Observation would appear to back up claims of bias in several cases. On Sat 1, for example, the ratio of air-time given to Kohl, in comparison with Social Democrat leader Rudolf Scharping, has been almost 5 to 1 since the beginning of this year. And the coverage given by Sat 1 to other parties, such as the Free Democrats and Greens, has lagged far behind that of the Social Democrats.
But Kirch Group officials deny attempting to influence the election. Johannes Schmitz, a Kirch spokesman, said it was only natural that the chancellor would appear on television more often, since he is running government.
``Our main business is entertainment and cultural programming. It's not our goal to elect the chancellor. We're not trying to exert political influence,'' Mr. Schmitz said.
Schmitz also said that the diversity of views on German television has never been greater. Commercial stations have existed in Germany only since 1985, he reasoned. Before that, the two state-run channels, ARD and ZDF, monopolized the airwaves.
Diversity doesn't guarantee either accuracy or objectivity, counter critics of the media's coverage. Many predict that the debate over commercial television operation regulation will intensify following the election.
``The incumbent parties opened the way for private media, and now the private media is showing its gratitude,'' said Heinz Kotte of Media Watch, a Cologne-based watchdog organization.
* With reporting by Ellen Hasenkamp.