JAKARTA (Reuters) - If Indonesia's presidential election were to be decided by favourable coverage on its television channels, ex-general Prabowo Subianto would be in the driver's seat and frontrunner
Joko "Jokowi" Widodo would trail far behind.
Jokowi is ahead in opinion polls but Prabowo is catching up with less than a month to go for the July 9 election, according to surveys. But the surveys say about 40 percent of the electorate is undecided and television channels could decide, or at least heavily influence, who will lead the world's third-largest democracy for the next five years.
"The real war is to win the 41 percent of voters that are still undecided. In this case, the role of the media will be crucial," said Amir Effendi Siregar, the head of pr2media, a private media watchdog group.
The viewership numbers heavily favour Prabowo - two media moguls who control nearly half of Indonesia's TV audience are firmly with the former special forces chief.
Aburizal Bakrie, the head of the Golkar party which has thrown its weight behind Prabowo, owns media group PT Visi Media Asia (VIVA.JK) and its two free-to-air nationwide television stations, ANTV and TVOne.
Hary Tanoesoedibjo, a member of Prabowo's inner circle of advisers, owns the Media Nusantara Citra (MNCN.JK) group and its three national TV stations RCTI, MNCTV and Global TV.
The other presidential hopeful, Jokowi, is backed by media tycoon Surya Paloh, chairman of the small National Democrat party that is part of his alliance, and owner of leading news channel MetroTV.
"The use of media in political campaigns this year compared to other elections is much more intense and the bias is more obvious because TV owners are involved," said Siregar, adding that the owners could use their businesses as bargaining chips to further political ambitions.
Paloh's MetroTV however has just 3 percent of the country's viewership, compared to 44 percent for the five stations that are pro-Prabowo, according to Nielsen Indonesia.
According to the market research group, Indonesia's 11 privately-owned national TV stations reach 95 percent of the country's 240 million people. Newspapers reach only 12 percent.
Most of Indonesia's people live on the islands of Java and Sumatra, but the rest are scattered across thousands of islands spread over 5,000 km (3,000 miles). The role of mass media in political campaigns, especially in close contests, is crucial.
"It is definitely having an impact on the election. In terms of TV stations, Prabowo's camp has much more than Jokowi's," said Tobias Basuki, a political analyst at think tank CSIS.
"We can't say exactly how much of an impact it will have, but the election (media watchdog) is not able to force TV stations to be objective."
The TV stations profess to be even-handed, but, with highly partisan owners, neutrality is noticeably absent.
For example, Paloh's MetroTV showed live coverage of Jokowi speaking at a campaign stop in West Java last week, while Bakrie's TVOne ignored the event, keeping to a regular talk show.
On the same day, TVOne devoted nearly all of its noontime news to the Prabowo campaign, interviewing supporters and repeatedly showing a video highlighting the former general's career. There was no such coverage for Jokowi.
But Jokowi has fared well in the first of the nationally televised debates between him and Prabowo, which was aired live last week on several stations. The next debate was scheduled for Sunday and there will be at least two more before the election.
The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) agrees many channels devote far more air time to one of the candidates or the other and has issued warning letters to the three TV owners.
Some stations use quizzes, reality shows, soap operas and religious programmes for campaigns and political advertising, it has said.
"Our findings show that the tendency for bias is mostly found on the news-based television channels. They are MetroTV and TVOne," Idy Muzzayad, the deputy chairman of KPI, told Reuters.
Indonesian regulations require that free-to-air television stations remain politically neutral and independent.
KPI, however, only has authority to recommend action against a media company to the Telecommunication and Information Ministry, which can terminate a company's broadcasting license.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who must step down in October after serving a two-term limit, has urged more balanced coverage.
"I hope the press and media will have accurate and constructive reporting. Easy to say, but maybe not as easy to do for the press and media owners," he said last month.
Media company officials said their TV stations cover what they can from the two presidential campaigns.
"There is no owner intervention in our editorial content, but I think every media has their priority," said Arya Sinulingga, a spokesman for Tanoesoedibjo's MNC Group.
TVOne officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
A MetroTV official denied any bias in coverage, but did say it was more difficult to cover Prabowo than Jokowi.
"Our reporters do not receive the same treatment when covering Prabowo. It is not that we don't want to cover Prabowo," said Suryopratomo, a news director for MetroTV.
"We never pick sides. Politics is just for five years, while the existence of media is for the long term."
Additional reporting by Fathiyah Dahrul; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Raju Gopalakrishnan