A PARODY on Germany's state-run ARD national television network has sparked political theatrics that threaten to escalate into a major production over press freedom.
It all started Jan. 26 when a satirical spot on a current affairs program known as Monitor ridiculed German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The program suggested that the Bonn government wasn't doing enough to restrain Russia's brutal onslaught in Chechnya. It portrayed a mock phone ''conversation'' between Mr. Kohl and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who, after hanging up, calls the German chancellor an ''idiot.''
Kohl took offense, calling the show ''the bottom level of bad taste,'' and called for a massive financial overhaul of ARD. He and his political allies even threatened to break up the channel.
ARD officials, backed by the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, called the Kohl-backed move an attempt to quash dissenting views. ARD brings together, in a loose configuration, regional state-controlled TV stations. Officials say they are willing to discuss reform, but add they will fiercely resist any attempt to break up the network.
The dispute spotlights the highly politicized nature of German TV. The two state-run channels -- ARD and ZDF -- have a reputation for being partisan. ARD is known to back the opposition SPD, while ZDF supports the governing coalition, especially Kohl's Christian Democrats and the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union.
In addition, in the decade-plus since the introduction of commercial television, at least one privately held channel, Sat-1, owned by Bavarian media mogul Leo Kirch, has aligned itself with the chancellor, television analysts say.
Some government opponents say that in his 12-plus years in power, the chancellor has become accustomed to the sycophancy of ''pro-Kohl'' TV channels, and thus has become intolerant of criticism. They imply that Kohl's behavior is improper, if not illegal.
''A chancellor who deviates so greatly from his oath of office must be called into account for his incredible and scandalous behavior before the Bundestag [lower house of parliament],'' says Guenter Verheugen, a SPD leader.
Under one reform proposal, ARD-affiliated channels would be merged, shrinking regional radio and TV networks from 11 to six or seven. The reductions would ostensibly be a cost-containment measure. Owners of televisions and radios in Germany pay a monthly fee to state coffers to subsidize public broadcasting.
Critics say the government's real aim isn't to keep down the TV fees, but an attempt to manipulate the content of the opposition's main mouthpiece. Others see it as a way to weaken public channels, thus increasing the competitive position of private broadcasters.
SPD leaders say if the Kohl government tries to implement its television reform it will retaliate, utilizing the blocking majority that the opposition enjoys in the Bundesrat, or upper house of parliament. By employing its veto power, the SPD could block legislation covering a wide range of issues, which could, in turn, result in political gridlock.
Although the ARD debate has assumed a political character, there remains an arguable need for a shake-up in public broadcasting. Because the state-run channels now face stiffer competition from commercial stations, advertising revenue has dipped. At the same time, work forces at the state-run channels appear bloated. ARD, for instance, has a total of 24,000 employees.
*Ellen Hasenkamp contributed to this report.