U.K. culture secretary pledges C4 support

Andy Burnham prefers tie-up with BBC Worldwide

LONDON -- U.K. Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, speaking at a news conference Thursday, signaled that the government would prefer a tie-up between Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide to a merger with RTL-owned Channel Five.

In his first public comments on the matter since Wednesday's publication of the Ofcom public service broadcasting report, Burnham told the Oxford Media Convention that Channel 4 will be continue to be supported and has a key role in the provision of public service broadcasting. The network estimates it will face a 150 million pound-per-year ($206.4 million) cash deficit by 2012.

"Let me be clear: the Channel 4 brand is here to stay. Public service content would be at its heart but it must be allowed to be innovative and flexible with partnerships," Burnham told an audience of policymakers, broadcast executives and academics.

"It is natural to look at BBC Worldwide first," he said. "But we have to keep other options open, (such) as exploring the license fee (surplus) after switchover."

But Burnham did not close the door on a merger with Five or using BBC license fee money, saying that "other options must remain on the table."

All eyes will now be on a report expected next week from Communications Minister Stephen Carter, who next week is expected to nominate a number of potential funding options for public service broadcasting and broadband communication in the U.K.