Former Bookmark editor Roly Keating has turned over a new leaf as Auntie's digital controller. Tim Dams reports on a man with a mission.
Just days after being appointed last week as BBC controller of digital channels, Roly Keating was sitting in a lecture hall at the RTS Cambridge convention surrounded by a smorgasbord of industry big cheeses.

One topic of debate dominated: digital. Media Secretary Chris Smith devoted his morning keynote speech to the subject. A session called Open the Gates - the Fight for the Consumer in the Digital Age followed.

The sight of so many industry players kowtowing to digital underlines the importance of Keating's new job. BBC Choice, BBC Knowledge, the UKTV pay channels and future channel development fall under his new remit, meaning he'll play a key role in determining how Auntie copes with the digital future.

On the surface he's an unlikely candidate for the role. Joining the BBC in 1983 as a trainee after reading Classics at Oxford, Keating was a founding producer of arts strand The Late Show and edited Bookmark for five years.

But by the mid-nineties he was moonlighting, devising channel development ideas with then controller of strategy and development David Docherty on a part-time basis. He obviously impressed - in 1997 he took over as UKTV head of programming.

With the industry openly embracing digital, Keating's jump from arts to new services looks to be a canny one.

But former Late Show colleague Michael Jackson - now Channel 4 chief executive - recalls: 'Back then it wasn't necessarily a way to better things. But Roly has always ploughed his own field to a certain extent. He didn't go the traditional route - and that's always a good thing.'

Jackson describes Keating as 'analytical, sharp and very thoughtful', words that are echoed by BBC colleagues who say that he is taken very seriously by key corporation players such as Alan Yentob - with whom he also worked closely in his arts days. Keating was even tipped as a key contender for the BBC 2 controllership last time round.

A BBC insider adds his own thoughts about the 38-year-old Keating: 'There are two sorts of people at the BBC in the 35-plus age bracket. The old school, who refuse to look at the future and only work with big name producers.

The second sort align themselves with the new generation, new channels and new talent. That's Roly.'

Keating's immediate priority is to complete the search for a new BBC Choice programming head - following Katharine Everett's appointment as controller of navigation and interactive TV last month. A rethink of Choice will follow. He says that 'despite a superbly professional launch', in retrospect the channel had too complex a brief and tried to offer too many things - from sport, entertainment to documentary.

However, Keating is tight-lipped on just how Choice will revamp until the new head is in place. He won't be drawn on talk of the channel becoming a youth-oriented BBC 3, but picks out three words to describe its future brief - 'entertainment, innovation, rejuvenation'. A key change will also see Choice investing in 'fewer, but more heavyweight commissions'.

'Digital is a chance for the BBC to be rejuvenating itself - but that means more than just targeting 16 to 34-year-olds,' Keating claims. 'Rejuvenation doesn't just mean young presenters.'

Priorities for UKTV include making UK Gold 'even bigger and stronger, with a good portfolio of channels around it'. UK Gold, he says, is the seventh biggest channel in the market and is 'giving Sky One a run for its money'. He's also full of praise for UK Play, which although 'tiny in distribution terms, we know is going to be a big and successful brand - it's coherent, creative and original'.

Industry opinion seems to be that Keating has made a fair fist of getting UKTV's channels on air, but critics still argue they need better branding to make them stand out. One comments: 'There's a lot of them, and to be honest, I'm not sure what each of them is about'.

However, all revamps will be on hold until November. In the meantime Keating's off to Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania to take an advanced management programme - a fitting introduction, some might say, to the upper echelons of the BBC.

With an arty background running The Late Show and Bookmark (left), it seems curious that Roly Keating should now be heading the BBC's digital channels. Not so, he says. 'It seemed a natural step from the 'can do, let's reinvent the world' attitude of The Late Show'.