BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - Marcelo Tinelli, the host of Argentina's top-rated television show, says he's just having some fun with his new political satire, but he could influence a close congressional race on June 28.
Last year, Tinelli ran a racy pole-dancing contest that sent ratings for his "Showmatch" variety show through the ceiling.
Now, he has shifted gears and put political leaders on the defensive with "Big Brother-in-Law," a parody featuring impersonations of prominent politicians.
The show lampoons President Cristina Fernandez, her husband Nestor Kirchner who preceded her in office and is now running for Congress, Kirchner's main opponent Francisco de Narvaez, and others.
Media critics and analysts say the show could shape the outcome of the tight race between Kirchner and De Narvaez in the key province Buenos Aires, home to more than a third of Argentines, although it is unclear in which direction.
If the opposition does well in the mid-term it will try to put the brakes on Fernandez's policies of increasing state intervention in businesses and financial markets.
"Without a doubt, Tinelli is a high priest of opinion. His comments on the candidates are very important, they influence opinion, especially the undecided voters, and there are lots of them," said Fernando Ruiz, a specialist on journalism and democracy at the Austral University in Buenos Aires.
The political humor segment is just part of Tinelli's mix -- often criticized as low-brow -- of spoofs on sports history and society, celebrity interviews and performances, sexy showgirls, and talent contests.
Tinelli, who pitches everything from cough syrup to Volkswagens between segments, told Reuters he is not trying to sway voters on "Big Brother-in-Law," which is a revival of a political show he did previously.
But he does admit the show is influential, especially since the candidates have asked to appear live with their imitators.
"The fact that they come on the program clearly shows it's important to them," said Tinelli, 49, who started as a sportscaster and now works with the country's top comedians and comic writers.
More than 5.5 million Argentines watch "Showmatch," which has been on the air for 20 years. Even people who don't tune in know what happened on the show, because it is all over the newspapers and daytime talk shows the next day.
Advertising on "Showmatch" costs about $1,100 per second, one of the highest rates in Argentine television.
President Fernandez's Cabinet Chief Sergio Massa, who acts as a spokesman for her government and is also running for Congress, and Buenos Aires Province Governor Daniel Scioli are the only ruling party politicians who have come on so far.
Tinelli said he was surprised by their appearance. Opposition politicians have been more receptive because they have less to lose.
Tinelli says he hasn't had any direct pressure from anyone in the government to tone down his show's portrayal of President Fernandez. But he says he gets indirect pressure as people talk to others or make comments to the media.
Fernandez and Kirchner are notoriously hostile to the media but Tinelli hopes they will appear on the show.
"It would be a good opportunity for them to communicate with people, to show they have a sense of humor," he said.
When Massa was on the show he did not say anything important. He just joked around with his impersonator.
But he deftly dodged a set-up where Tinelli tried to get him to comb the long, auburn hair of the actor who plays the president on the show.
"Tinelli is the most successful television person in Argentina and television here has a fundamental influence on people. That's why politicians are going on now to show themselves and be ridiculed," said Pablo Hecker, a media analyst who writes for newspaper and other publications.
Additional reporting by Jorge Otaola; editing by Patricia Reaney