Ofcom supports Channel 4 merger

But makes no specific recommendations

LONDON -- U.K. media regulator Ofcom published its blueprint on the future of public service broadcasting Wednesday, ruling out the idea of "top-slicing" the BBC license fee to support Channel 4 but leaving many questions about the publically owned net's future unanswered.

The media regulator, which also came out in favor of more commercial freedom for ailing ITV, said that it backs the idea of protecting Channel 4 by strengthening the organization and making it part of a larger, more robust body "preferably through partnerships, joint ventures or even mergers." But the much-anticipated report failed to cite specific recommendations, doing little to reduce the confusion over the broadcaster's future.

Among the options Ofcom has put forth are a merger with rival commercial network Five, owned by commercial player RTL, or a possible partnership with BBC Worldwide.

Both options will face tough opposition.

Channel 4 CEO Andy Duncan and chairman Luke Johnson have opposed the idea of a merger with Five, saying that the two broadcasters are like "oil and water."

Instead, they have backed the idea of a merger with BBC Worldwide, the program sales and channels division of the BBC, an idea that BBC director general Mark Thompson and chairman Michael Lyons strenuously oppose.

Additionally, Ofcom has backed the creation of a new public service news organization that will take over some of the responsibilities from ITV's regional news operation.

Ofcom's main priorities remain to "keep the BBC, funded by the license fee, at the heart of public service broadcasting in the U.K. with a role in pioneering the development and take-up of content across new digital platforms," the broadcast regulator said.

At the same time, it intends to "free up ITV and Five as strong commercial networks making entertaining, engaging U.K. content including national and international news, but with limited public service commitments."

Ofcom's report will be followed by a series of reports to government this month, and a decision is expected from Culture Secretary Andy Burnham in the spring.
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