THERE WAS NO PROUDER champion of Canadian television, Canadian creativity, and all the people working in it than Jay Switzer – and the industry is poorer today without him in it.
Switzer, 61, former CEO of CHUM Limited, founder of movie service Hollywood Suite and launcher of an untold number of careers, died Monday surrounded by family after a several months long bout with brain cancer.
He really was born to be in TV. Jay’s late mom Phyllis was a journalist who covered the Canadian broadcasting industry and then later was a co-founder of CityTV, while his late dad Israel (“Sruki”) was a legendary cable engineer, building coaxial and fibre networks across Canada and the world for a range of cable companies. Switzer and his two sisters were each born in different western Canadian cities (Jay’s was Calgary) as their dad built cable from town to town.
Phyllis famously put her son to work covering a CRTC hearing for her in 1969 – sending him by train on his own at age 13 to Trois Rivieres to take notes and record the hearing. “I remember the fear and excitement of sitting one table away from Mr. Pierre Juneau during breakfast at the hearing hotel,” Jay wrote back in 2002 in a Cablecaster Magazine column.
“My sisters (Chiara and Sharon) and I were raised to be independent and empowered people so it didn’t seem strange at all to be sitting at the press table at a CRTC hearing, at the tender age of 13, trying to record everything important being discussed. This was my introduction to television in Canada,” he wrote. (Pictured is Jay filming his sisters at a McLean-Hunter studio in 1971.)
Switzer was a whiz kid who, three years after that hearing, was running the switchboard for the recently launched Citytv – and then before going away to university was floor director for the channel’s Fight Night boxing broadcasts. When he returned from Western University, MBA in hand, Switzer came back to Citytv as a program manager, his first and longest love.
He was a true champion of Canadian content. So many interesting and edgy shows and TV channels came to life under his leadership at CHUM (MuchMusic, FashionTelevision, MovieTelevision, The New Music, Bravo!, Space, MuchMoreMusic, CP24) as he rose through the ranks even after its purchase by the Waters family, until eventually becoming president and CEO of the company in 2002.
More than 200 Canadian feature films were financed while he was at CHUM and he helped export the company’s ideas around the world, too. The MuchMusic and Citytv format was exported to the U.S. and Latin America and CHUM content like FashionTelevision, was sold into more than 150 countries. When he stepped down from his position after CHUM was sold, Switzer continued to travel to all the world’s best TV markets and accompanied his wife, actress Ellen Dubin to movie and TV sets and of course launched Hollywood Suite in 2010.
Switzer’s hallmark, however, was his intellect, his wit and his generosity. He was exceptionally kind and giving of his time and expertise (including to this grateful reporter) and so many of people consider him a mentor. His support of women rising up in this business was also recognized throughout his career.
When we knew his passing was imminent, Cartt.ca began preparing an obituary and the numbers of people who wanted to talk about him was staggering, so we’ll let them take it from here.
Said Ellen Baine, vice-president of programming, Hollywood Suite who worked with Switzer for 30 years: “Finding a great boss who doubles as a mentor is like having a unicorn – not because there are no great bosses or mentors but because it is such a delicate balance between the two. And having a mentor is not a guarantee of success – just a tool for career development. In the case of Jay, he was not only the best tool but also a guarantee of a friend and supporter for life.
“At this crossroads in the lives of women professionally in our field and others, imagine how lucky I was, we were, to work for such a liberated man.” – Ellen Baine
“We were attending NATPE together in about 1990 (my first one) and I commented as I looked around on how few women I saw in the sea of broadcast ‘suits’ and studio executives. He said to me ‘well if you're feeling that, imagine what my mom must have felt like when she was coming here.’ At this crossroads in the lives of women professionally in our field and others, imagine how lucky I was, we were, to work for such a liberated man.”
Christina Jennings, the CEO of Shaftesbury Films, met Jay Switzer over 30 years ago when she was a partner in Emilio's restaurant on Queen Street while Jay worked at CityTV. She had just co-produced a feature film, the thriller Cottage Country, which Switzer ended up purchasing for the broadcaster. “I went into the CityTV building… down to the basement where Jay was working. His office was amazing. Scripts piled high everywhere and VHS tapes lining the wall. He was in the programming department. I think his mother, Phyllis, was upstairs on the executive floor.
“Probably the most successful project that Jay and I worked on was when he/CHUM commissioned the first Murdoch Mystery movies. We shot two movies in the first year, another one the following year and then they decided to order a prime time series – a risky venture at the time since no one was producing period procedurals. But that's what Jay and his team liked about it. Murdoch would stand apart from the rest of what was currently on offer on television. And that, 15 years ago, began the Murdoch TV brand.
“Jay loved this business. He grew up on it and it gave him such joy. He loved helping people – like me – actors that he thought were good – writers/directors. Jay was without a doubt one of the nicest, most honourable people that I have ever known.”
Brad Danks, CEO, OUTtv: “He was a rare leader, unsurpassed in his influence and respect within the Canadian broadcasting Industry. His unabashed love for the business fueled his generous desire to help others succeed. Jay was the consummate people connector and when he combined this with his unsurpassed knowledge of the industry he made magical things happen.
“I was incredibly fortunate to have him as a mentor for more than a decade and his wisdom and gentle guidance were a unique gift. Always humble, always challenging and always fair, he combined a keen intellect with a selflessness few can master. Like all great leaders, Jay inspired people by example, showing a unique combination of class, respect, humility and integrity that he relentlessly focused on making our Industry stronger and our world a better place.”
Matt Loze, head of scripted entertainment, BBC Worldwide: “There are few people in our entertainment industry that deserve to be more resoundingly honored not just for their actions and professional acumen as for their good character. Jay balanced integrity, wisdom and creative instinct in one big hearted man. As we watch a generation of powerful men crash and burn over abhorrent behavior, I'm proud to recognize one man who surrounded himself with, mentored, and supported so many smart, creative, tremendously talented women. CHUM/CityTV was the first truly balanced, forward, progressive entertainment company. This was truly a credit to Jay's leadership and commitment that he helped create and manage one of the most welcoming, unique creative businesses.
“For me, there is no Jay without Ellen. She's been a part of every conversation I've ever had with him. He's been so proud of her and her accomplishments as a performer. She's the character performer of Jay's act and his real life achievement award. Together or separately, in Toronto or Sherman Oaks, they have always been a couple that one can't help but admire.”
Gary Maavara, corporate secretary, Corus Entertainment: “Jay Switzer was almost always optimistic and always looking for the policy viewpoint that reconciled a number of diverse interests. He was a man with an open mind, passionately interested in programming – and if you really want to see his face light up you could start talking about a particular new film or television series. He would immediately have deep background on the program and give you an incisive analysis of what was good, or bad, about the production.”
Armando Nunez, president, CBS Studios International: “The global media industry has lost someone who was both greatly respected and admired, not only in Canada, but all around the world. I would have met Jay in the early 80s, around the time I started in the business through my father Armando, Sr. My dad and Jay were great friends from their very first meeting as they were cut from the same cloth; both incredibly passionate about media and universally well-liked.
"Jay Switzer was definitely one of the good guys; a gentleman, an industry icon and a good friend that will be missed by all.” - Armando Nunez, CBS International
“In those early days, Jay treated me the same way then as he treated me over the next 35 years, which is the same way he treated everyone – with kindness, respect and dignity. It didn’t matter if we met in the hallways of the Palais, the lobby of a hotel at a market or just last year at the LA Screenings (pictured above), Jay always beamed with a passion and curiosity for the media business; irrespective of what position or title he held.
“One of my fondest memories of Jay is listening to his predictions every spring around what the networks might be doing with their schedules. Jay would sit down with me and scribble down what he thought the CBS schedule would look like and how the other U.S. networks would program. More often than not, he would get much of the schedule right.”
“I was always so happy to see Jay together with his wife Ellen (who Jay adored and always talked about) at my home during our annual pre-LA screenings BBQ. Jay Switzer was definitely one of the good guys; a gentleman, an industry icon and a good friend that will be missed by all.”
Holly Dale, director (Dexter, Chicago Fire, The Americans and many others): “Jay was a wonderful and giving person and was always so very supportive of the creative community. Personally, he was a milestone in my career. In 1986 myself and my documentary film partner Janis Cole made a very controversial film entitled Hookers on Davie. Jay took a great risk and ran it primetime on CityTV when no one else would show it. That gesture opened many doors for myself and Janis. Over the years Jay has always been very supportive to my career giving me lots of opportunity as he has also done for so many other filmmakers. I hold him dear as a great contributor to my success. He was just such a kind and generous man, a good friend and one of the most generous supporters of the film and television community that there was.”
Phyllis Yaffe (former president of Alliance Atlantis and current consul general for Canada in New York): “Jay was always a friend to those who needed one. He was a mentor before it was fashionable, always helping young folks who were trying to get into the TV business. He would give of his time and his encyclopedic knowledge generously. I know when I needed to figure things out he would always be helpful. He did it at work and on boards by explaining what he thought might not be obvious but no one would ask about. It was appreciated by everyone I am sure. I know I did. Jay was a mentor but also a mensch.”
David Kines, president, Hollywood Suite: “I first met Jay when I was an editor on The New Music in 1984. The producer of the program at the time was Daniel Richler, and we were, as usual, frantically editing the weekly show, and this particular week we had a full episode covering a music festival. We were having a very difficult time fitting everything in to our 60 minute slot so we went to see Jay, the CityTV program director at the time, to ask for an extra 30 minutes of air-time. Jay turned us down, saying if the material was so good it would make an amazing hour. It was my first lesson in ‘less is more’ and one of many I learned from him that has stuck with me to this day.
“He was truly a ‘glass half-full’ guy, almost always seeing the potentially good outcome of a situation or person. He wasn’t afraid to throw you into the deep end and see if you’d float.”
Mark Rubinstein, consultant and former TV executive: “I ‘grew up’ with Jay in the TV business at the wonderful CHUM TV company,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “We worked shoulder to shoulder launching so many TV brands that became wildly successful. Jay had this incredible and unique mix of programmer and business man. The only guy I knew who could program a prime time schedule AND create a business plan in excel for a new TV license. Wonderful man, great colleague and gentle spirit.”
Switzer served on the boards of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the Banff Television Festival, the National Association of Television Program Executives, and the Toronto Film Board. He served as chair of the board of GlassBOX Television from 2009-2011, and most recently served on the boards of: OUTtv, Shaftesbury Films, and Comweb Corporation. He was also a long-time supporter of Ryerson University, serving on the Advisory Board for the Faculty of Radio and Television Arts since 2012.
He is survived by his wife Ellen Dubin, as well as his sisters.
Funeral service details will be available here on Tuesday and a celebration of his life will be scheduled for the spring.
We at Cartt.ca send out condolences to Jay’s family and friends. We will miss him.