Earlier this year the industry lost one of its mightiest builders when Jay Switzer passed away from brain cancer at age 61. The native Albertan played an integral role in the growth of Citytv, the expansion of its national footprint as well as the launch of CHUM specialty channels including MuchMusic, Bravo! and Space. He served as CHUM Limited president and CEO from 2002 until the company was purchased by CTVglobemedia in 2007.
Switzer was born into the business. His parents were cable-systems pioneer Israel “Sruki” Switzer and Citytv co-founder Phyllis Switzer, who successfully applied to the CRTC for the station’s broadcast licence in 1971. But Jay proved a visionary in his own right, leaving an indelible mark on the Canadian broadcast landscape that was recognized with his investiture into the Order of Canada shortly before he died.
Several of Switzer’s closest colleagues and actress Ellen Dubin, his wife, spoke to Playback about his influence and enduring legacy.
Ascending at CHUM
Switzer began his career at Citytv as a 16-year-old switchboard operator in 1972, the year it launched. He moved up to floor director and worked on the Fight Night series alongside production assistant Marcia Martin, who would rise to CHUM Television’s VP production.
Switzer went off to get an MBA at the University of Western Ontario then returned in 1983 to Citytv, which had by then been acquired by CHUM. He served as program manager and co-wrote the application for MuchMusic, which launched the company’s successful foray into specialty in 1984. He worked with Citytv co-founder and CHUM production head Moses Znaimer at selling the broadcaster’s in-house programs and formats worldwide – such as Fashion Television to VH1. He was later put in charge of CHUM’s entire TV and radio empire.
Marcia Martin, former CHUM Television VP production: Jay was always present at the LA Screenings. He knew the distribution side of the business and could provide the right direction for buying. He knew what other broadcasters were looking for because he was competing with them on the international floor in North America and at MIPCOM. He had a head for buying, so for him to lead distribution and sales made perfect sense.
He was instrumental in all our channel applications because of his programming and business savvy. The CRTC wants to know, “What are you going to do for the industry?” He was able to speak to them about content because he was always in touch with independent Canadian producers. The applications were a collaboration among sales, production and distribution, and he knew all of it. He could address the business side of it and the company’s strength in supporting Canadian content, and you could hear the passion in his voice.
Jay didn’t lead with a heavy hand. He trusted his team, and when you have that kind of trust you really rise to the occasion.
Ellen Baine, former CHUM Television VP programming: Jay was instrumental in getting the Star Trek franchise on Citytv, beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation . A lot of this business is done on relationships. Sometimes people will do favours for you based on your years of working with them. Jay was very specific with me on that when we were buying things: “Everybody deserves respect.” In the end everybody has to feel they got a good deal, but you need to be respectful, and even more so to Canadian producers and distributors.
In my first couple of years he took the lead and did all the negotiations at the LA Screenings, then he turned it over to me. But he was always there with me in whatever way I felt comfortable, whether I wanted him in the room or not. He was always there to back me up.
He was always most proud of the women he knew. When they did something great or got new careers he would always be encouraging, and it probably came from Phyllis. She was a big influence on him.
Starting from the ground up at GlassBox
Switzer left CHUM after its sale, but didn’t slow down, joining boards at OUTtv, Comweb/Whites, Shaftesbury and Ryerson University’s Faculty of Radio and Television Arts. In some cases he made financial investments, in others he was just investing his time. In the case of pioneering cross-platform broadcaster GlassBox Television, where he served as chair, it was both.
Raja Khanna, former CEO of GlassBox Television: In 2007, when I left my role at QuickPlay Media to get closer to the content business, Jay was the first guy I called. We both had become free agents, and when we started to structure the deal at GlassBox, he was one of the first investors. We asked him to be our chairman.
In some ways we were trying to build a more modern version of what he had done – a market disruptor using the latest content trends to innovate and drive adoption. We were operating in the television space with Bite TV, Aux and Travel + Escape, but our end goal was engaging consumers on whatever platforms they’re consuming. We saw eye to eye with Jay on the need to try different things and embrace the web and online content distribution rather than resist it.
He had a way of telling us we were being stupid while making us feel smart. He would get his point across about what we were doing wrong and how we should improve our strategies and different approaches we could take. We always felt like he was holding us up, when actually he was telling us we were wrong. He was the perfect chairperson.
Co-founding Hollywood Suite
In 2011, Switzer and partners David Kines – formerly CHUM’s VP and GM, Music & Youth – Michael McLaughlin, Jeff Sackman and Catherine Tait launched Hollywood Suite, which offers four movie channels spanning the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, as well as on-demand offerings and the Hollywood Suite GO app.
David Kines, president, Hollywood Suite: Michael McLaughlin came up with the notion that there was a hole in the market for classic movies with the decline of Blockbuster and other video stores. He pitched the idea of Hollywood Suite to me and Jay and a few others, and at the time we agreed there was a hole, particularly for HD services. So we raised the money and got on air.
Jay had always been forward-thinking in the digital space. At CHUM he was a huge proponent of us getting into digital, and he shepherded the CHUM Television Interactive department. MuchMusic was the first Canadian broadcaster with a website [launching in 1995]. At Hollywood Suite, out of the gate we had on-demand capability through the BDUs, and in 2014 we launched Hollywood Suite GO to give consumers a way to interact with us directly.
It’s been a tough time in broadcasting. It’s not the boom years [like] when MuchMusic was profitable in its first year. But Jay’s attitude was, “I know this is a good product; we’re going to make it.” It’s been a long slog, but we’re doing well. His unwavering enthusiasm and positivity are the greatest things he brought. He was our chairman and a guiding force. We miss him.
Mentor until the end
Switzer seemed to always have time to impart sage advice and help out where he could. One beneficiary is Christina Jennings, founder, CEO and chair of Shaftesbury. At Citytv, Switzer bought the first movie she tried to sell – Aiken Scherberger’s Whodunit?, aka Cottage Country (1986) – and later picked up Shaftesbury’s Murdoch Mysteries franchise one day after the developing broadcaster backed out.
Christina Jennings, founder and CEO, Shaftesbury: In 2011 I asked him to join the Shaftesbury board. He said, “Sure, and if I’m on the board I’m going to want a little skin in the game.” So he also became an investor. He came to nearly every meeting and if he couldn’t come he was on a call. He always had great insights into the industry and Shaftesbury’s position within it.
Every year, we would get together after the LA Screenings and he would give me a rundown of what he thought were the hits and misses. It was about giving me intel about what was coming up, why a certain show could be really good and which Canadian broadcaster bought it.
In those last months before he died the board had to deal with something time sensitive. Even though he was going through his various treatments, he took the time to consider the board’s request and give me his opinion over the phone. Right until the end he was the most generous man. He was a mensch.
Actress Ellen Dubin met Switzer when he was in high school and she was in junior high. They were married in 1988.
Ellen Dubin: Jay was brilliant and successful at his job, but the things I want people to take away are not only his support of many people in the business – and I keep getting e-mails about that – but also that he was a romantic, devoted husband. I’m in such a crazy business where you are always rejected, and we were each other’s support system from the get-go. When I started as a ballet dancer he would come to every recital, and later to every crappy play I did in university.
He never veered from that. Once Jay set his mind to something in business or his personal life, he remained on that path. We can name all the awards he’s won and what a visionary he was, but people want to live better lives because of Jay. He truly inspired everybody.
He supported [Indigenous filmmaker and visual artist] Shirley Cheechoo, who runs the Weengushk Film Institute, for 13 years. He had a history of work within the Indigenous community, so when the Canadian Film Centre announced the [10-year, $100,000 Jay Switzer Comweb/William F. White International Indigenous Creator Scholarship] it tied it all back for me. I’m his wife so I love him and always will, but Jay was always Jay. He never wavered in caring about people and I think that’s his greatest legacy.
Playback’s Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame was founded in 2007 to recognize extraordinary achievements in the Canadian entertainment industry. Inductees are selected by a jury of their peers.