Media Headliner: 'Grown-up move' or step towards the 'tail-end'?

Jim Hytner's return to TV, some commentators say, is less of a surprise than his decision to join Top Up TV.

In June 2004, when Jim Hytner revealed he was leaving ITV for Barclays, several theories started doing the rounds. There had to be a plausible reason for his decision to leave behind the media world he knew and loved in order to embrace the far dowdier world of banking.

Perhaps the job title had something to do with it. At ITV, he was merely the marketing and commercial director. At Barclays, he was set to become the group brand and UK banking marketing director. Far grander. Then, of course, there was the small matter of budgets. Although direct comparisons are difficult because ITV could obviously give him oodles of free airtime to play with, the ITV budget was nominally less than £10 million. At Barclays, it was more than £250 million and has risen since. A far bigger train set.

But there was another equally compelling theory at large. According to many observers, Hytner was taking on the Barclays task in order to add a bit of weight to his CV, planning for the day when he might want to set his cap at a far more weighty management role in television.

Last week, we had the chance to reassess that particular premise. True, Hytner is returning to the media world. But his status in the industry's pecking order is far less easily assessed - as of December, he's joining Top Up TV as its commercial director.

Unfortunately, this isn't a question we can ask him directly. The message from Hytner was that it was too early to talk about any of this stuff - and besides, he was going on holiday anyway.

Oh, OK. It has to be said that Top Up TV does not come across as a company brimming with confidence and boundless optimism. Having made the announcement, heads rapidly disappeared beneath the parapets once more - no-one was prepared to talk in detail about the current health of the company, growth prospects or even what Hytner's role will be when he joins just in time for the Christmas holidays.

Top Up TV is basically the digital terrestrial pay-TV option that sits alongside Freeview on the DTT platform. You pay £99.99 to acquire the latest-generation piece of kit - the Top Up TV Plus integrated decoder and PVR box - and then pay £9.99 a month to receive content from more than a dozen channels. Top Up gets around the problem of limited transmission capacity by offering content that can be downloaded overnight on to the hard drive of the box. In addition, you can pay extra to receive a film channel, Picture Box, or Setanta Sports.

It's often slighted (usually by rival platform executives) as pay-TV lite - and indeed, there's been ongoing speculation that it does indeed remain lightweight where subscriber numbers are concerned. One digital TV analyst estimates that it has around 200,000 customers and needs more than 400,000 to break even - but a company spokeswoman says that this is "not the sort of thing the company likes to discuss", so this must remain as speculation.

On the other hand, others maintain that, actually, the growth potential for Top Up TV is substantial. There are, after all, more than seven million homes on the Freeview platform, and if a fraction of those can be persuaded to trade up, there's a pretty meaty business there. And, they add, Hytner is exactly the sort of catalyst the business has been crying out for.

As one source puts it: "Don't underestimate this opportunity - and you can count on him turning this into something special. It's a grown-up move, especially as he'll own stock. They have a wonderful business model and a rich Russian backer."

That's a reference to Len Blavatnik, the Russian-American wheeler dealer, whose privately held Access Industries company has a controlling interest in Top Up TV. Blavatnik has a finger in many pies - from oil and chemicals to telecoms, aluminium production and real estate. Blavatnik was placed 102 on this year's Forbes Rich List, with a fortune estimated at more than $7 billion.

That's as maybe. But despite Blavatnik's deep pockets, Top Up TV is run as a tight ship - and Hytner will be working within narrower margins than he's ever faced before. On the other hand, he will certainly raise the company's profile. He's an adept networker who has a substantial fan club within the industry - the legacy of a series of high-profile roles.

Nick Milligan, a former colleague and the managing director of Sky Media, says: "Jim is a terrier. He makes things happen, and TV is in his blood. He is brilliant on his feet - although they are attached to very short legs."

Hytner was a marketing manager at both Coca-Cola and Sega before joining BSkyB in 1994. He jumped ship to Channel 5 (as it was then) in 1998, then moved on to ITV in 2001. And, of course, his decision to join Top Up TV may in part be down to the fact that it's run by one of his former bosses, David Chance, formerly the deputy managing director at BSkyB.

Hytner's sense of loyalty is legendary and sometimes even gets him into trouble. In 1998, when he arrived as the marketing director of Channel 5, one of his first actions was to sack the incumbent agencies Carat and Michaelides & Bednash, then hand the business without a pitch to Walker Media. There was a sense of deja vu when, in 2006, following a pitch this time, Hytner took Barclays' media business out of Starcom and awarded it to ... er, Walker Media.

On both occasions, some commentators were moved to point out that Walker Media's chief executive, Phil Georgiadis, is one of Hytner's best mates. Those episodes caused a stir and perhaps contributed to his fan club not being exactly universal.

So, his progress will be monitored with more than average interest. As one TV market observer puts it: "It's a strange one. There will be those who see this as a sideways move at best, especially as he was being linked with the (commercial director) ITV job. He'll be entering a much more uncomfortable world than he's ever really known. In terms of digital media platforms, you have BSkyB, Freeview and Virgin, and then the long tail. I didn't think Hytner saw himself as a tail-ender."