Up close and personal with Jay Switzer

8 p.m., Oct. 12, 1988. Jay Switzer, then-Citytv program manager, is at home in front of his television set, about to watch history in the making.

8 p.m., Oct. 12, 1988. Jay Switzer, then-Citytv program manager, is at home in front of his television set, about to watch history in the making.

‘I remember every single detail of that night,’ says the CHUM Television president and CEO, who is flanked by windows and TV screens in the redesigned corner office he recently inherited from his predecessor and longtime mentor Moses Znaimer. ‘I actually cried that night.’

It would have been your typical ‘must-see-TV’ Thursday, when The Cosby Show, simulcast on CTV, dominated television screens across the country. But on this particular fall night in Toronto, the little station that could, did.

For the first time in history, City was number one in the Toronto market, all thanks to its world television premiere of the feature film Dirty Dancing – a box-office hit that was still in theaters, and an acquisition masterminded by Switzer himself.

Usurping his pay-TV brethren at Astral Bellevue Pathe (now Astral Media) – which had output deals with most major U.S. studios, guaranteeing that the lion’s share of big-ticket movies would preem in Canada on pay-TV – Switzer scooped up the Hollywood indie hit from the Vestron studio.

At the time, City would normally grab a 2 share in Toronto, and tend to broadcast only second- and third-run movies. But the screening of Dirty Dancing rang in a 32 rating and a nearly 70 share that night, wiping out the competition and rounding out a defining moment for Switzer.

The movie ended at 10:12 p.m., recalls Switzer, who realized from that moment on that in order to get ahead in a business where the competition has deeper pockets and greater clout, ‘we must create the opportunities.’ ‘We’ being the operative word, since Switzer seldom speaks only of himself, and almost never draws a dividing line between his personal and professional life.

‘Television is my life,’ says the self-described TV brat, the son of the late Phyllis Switzer, who got the original 1971 CRTC licence for City, and Israel ‘Sruki’ Switzer, a Canadian cable pioneer.

And while the younger Switzer prefers to keep the conversation on television, he is quick to reveal that he’s recently lost 10 pounds with the help of (Fireworks Entertainment founder) Jay Firestone’s trainer. But he won’t expose his age – not because he suffers from some sort of Peter Pan syndrome, but rather that revealing his age might date his actress wife Ellen Dubin (The Collector). As Switzer, the loyal, protective and doting husband of 15 years, puts it, ‘In a land where Donna Mills is still playing a 26-year-old, it doesn’t pay to publicize your age.’

Switzer and Dubin, whom he affectionately calls Chuck, own a condo in Toronto’s Hazelton Lanes and rent a town house in Sherman Oaks, CA. But it is rare to find either of them in any one place for very long. While Dubin is busy chasing acting gigs from Thailand to Halifax, Switzer can generally be found in five different cities on any given week.

Last month, in one week alone, he was at the Emmys in New York; meeting with partners in Stockholm, Sweden; visiting Craig staff in Brandon, MB, and Calgary, AB; attending a launch party in Victoria, BC; and delivering an award at a WIFT-T event in Toronto. The week before that, he was in Cannes, France, for MIPCOM; Phoenix, AZ, to meet with radio managers on a sales incentive jaunt; and Las Vegas for his annual boy’s trip – the only non-work-related event on the agenda, but one nonetheless comprised of a group of top TV execs.

‘We’re like adults at summer camp,’ says Switzer giddily, quick to point out that ‘misbehaving in Vegas for us is going into a deep, dark steakhouse, ordering huge rare steaks and baked potatoes with butter, drinking scotch and smoking cigars.’

When asked who would be invited to his dream dinner party, Switzer chooses to keep it local: Toronto International Film Festival cofounder Dusty Cohl, filmmaker and adman Barry Avrich, TV personality and writer Daniel Richler, legal eagle Michael Levine and author/advocate Irshad Manji.

As a true TV junkie, the only magazines Switzer reads are trade, except Vanity Fair and – as he proudly points out – the November edition of Elle in which his wife is featured.

Admittedly in touch with his ‘other side,’ he says he’s a sucker for musicals and is a new iPod convert.

And while he should be relatively unfazed by celebrity musicians, when you consider that everyone who is anyone in the music industry has passed through CHUM’s doors, he admits to having sprung out of his chair to meet Annie Lennox and Paul McCartney.

And as much as Switzer is a champion of music, all things Canadian, his wife and TV, it is his current team at CHUM Television that he’s driven to talk about most.

In fact, what’s most rewarding for the man who worked his way up the programming chain since joining the company in 1982 is watching VP programming Ellen Baine, to whom he passed the baton six years ago, ‘do a better job than I ever did.’

In the last three years, the company has transitioned from a Waters-family-run business (which it was for 47 years) to a management-run business, with Switzer moving from second to first in command since Znaimer’s departure last year.

In the time the Waters family has decided to loosen the reins, CHUM’s non-voting shares have risen from $17 in 2000 to a current high of $27.60, which Switzer attributes to his management team’s personal and passionate investment in the company.

The recent purchase of Craig Media has also elevated the company to national network status, at least in size and scope, as Switzer points out.

‘We are still a decentralized company, unlike the CTV and CanWest Global networks, but we are now a business of critical mass and scale, where we can amortize our costs over 10 or 20 stations… We now also have greater credibility with the agencies – it isn’t just CTV, CanWest and a bunch of tertiary channels anymore. We’re now the third party, with 85% coverage [of the country].’

Still, the conventional television side of the business remains the biggest challenge. While radio and specialty continue to climb, overall revenue for conventional is down about 10% across the board this year, and declining. ‘Even though the purchase of Craig will help that scenario, we all have to swim twice as hard in that area,’ says Switzer.

But if swimming twice as hard is the biggest challenge that faces CHUM today, Switzer and his team will likely rise to the occasion. After all, the little station that could is now the national broadcaster that does.

In Switzer’s words: ‘Whether CHUM will be sold is no longer a popular topic of discussion.’