LONDON (AP) _ Public support for the royal family has fallen to its lowest level in years, a poll published Monday indicates.

Fewer than half the people surveyed by the polling firm ICM Research for The Guardian newspaper _ 44 percent _ support the royal family, defined as believing that Britain would be worse off without the royals.

In several similar polls conducted by ICM in the early 1990s, 70 percent of respondents felt the country would fare worse without the royals.

The level of support for the royal family is below the previous low point of 48 percent reached in 1997, just before the death of Princess Diana.

But the results suggest rising indifference to the monarchy rather than a surge in republican sentiment among Britons. While 27 percent of those polled felt Britain would be better off without the monarchy _ compared to 25 percent in 1998 and 30 percent in 1997 _ 29 percent said they didn't know whether it would be better or worse off. That compares to 5 percent to 10 percent who expressed no opinion in the early 1990s.

The pollsters found the greatest antipathy to the monarchy among young people, with 40 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds saying the country would be better off without the royals, against 24 percent who felt it would be worse off.

One in three people felt that Prince William, rather than his father, Prince Charles, should become king when Queen Elizabeth II abdicates or dies. Just under half, 48 percent, said Charles should take the throne.

But the royal family can take some comfort from the results _ 38 percent of respondents felt the royals had become more in touch with ordinary people since Diana died, while only 7 percent said they were less in touch. But 55 percent felt there had been no change.

Pollsters interviewed 1,006 adults aged 18 and over across Britain by telephone between May 26 and 28. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.