Veteran Canadian TV Programmer Jay Switzer Dies at 61

Courtesy of CBS Studios International
Jay Switzer

Switzer rose from manning the switchboard at City TV while in high school to running the iconic Canadian network Chum Ltd. until a $1.3 billion takeover in 2007.

Jay Switzer, who during a long career in Canadian broadcasting became synonymous with one-time radio and TV behemoth Chum Ltd., has died. He was 61.

Switzer died Monday in Toronto, with his family at his side, after a brief battle with brain cancer, it was announced by Hollywood Suite, a movie broadcaster in which he was a co-founder and chairman.

Friends and business partners around the industry were quick to pay tribute to Switzer on news of his death as one of the good guys. "The global media industry has lost someone who was both greatly respected and admired, not only in Canada, but all around the world," CBS Studios International president Armando Nunez told The Hollywood Reporter.

Switzer was a mainstay at TV markets including MIP, NATPE and the LA Screenings, the annual shopping expedition for Canadian broadcasters to buy up new and returning U.S. network series.

Nunez first met Switzer in the early 1980s and remembered him as a generous, down-to-earth TV exec.

"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," Nunez said in tribute to the late Canadian broadcasting exec. "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, Jay always beamed with a passion and curiosity for the media business, irrespective of what position or title he held."

Kevin Beggs, chairman of the Lionsgate Television Group, called Switzer the "patron saint of underdogs" because he was one before he became an industry insider who urged other media rebels to follow his lead. "With so many amazing talents it would be easy to assume that he might have been self-centered, but he was in fact the opposite. He was always interested in what you were doing, and how others were faring in this tricky and ever-shifting media landscape," added Beggs.

Andy Kaplan, president of worldwide networks at Sony Pictures Television, worked closely with Switzer in recent years as a partner in Hollywood Suite, a portfolio of four Canadian movie channels: Warner Films, MGM Channel, Sony Movie Channel and AXN Movies.

"Jay was an industry legend, from traditional broadcasting to today’s digital world. Jay loved it all — the channels, the partners and most of all the content. He was a true lover of television. He will be greatly missed," Kaplan said.

Switzer was born in Calgary, Alberta, on July 11, 1956, and raised in Lethbridge. His first job in broadcasting, at the age of 16, was manning the switchboard on Friday nights and weekends at City-TV, a Toronto TV station co-founded by his mother, Phyllis Switzer, who died in 1989.

In a 2005 interview with Business Edge magazine, Switzer recalled the TV station wanting a young man at the switchboard to field any awkward late-night calls and tolerate softcore porn aired on a nearby front-desk monitor courtesy of Citytv's Baby Blue Movies.

"They thought that they would keep the switchboard open late at night. They had some Baby Blue movies, with the occasional glimpse of a woman's bum or breast or something, and it was all very scandalous," Switzer recalled. He also had a Saturday night gig as crew chief and floor director assembling a boxing ring with his high school classmates on City TV's live Fight Night broadcasts.

Paid $1.50 an hour, Switzer got to clean George Chuvalo's spit cup. During a summer break at age 17, he directed TV pilots, including Beauty and the Beast, which starred the notorious Dutch madam Xaviera Hollander. Switzer also worked through high school and university as an installer for Maclean Hunter Cable, a fitting job as his father was Canadian cable pioneer Israel "Sruki" Switzer, who built and consulted on cable systems from the U.S. to Hong Kong and New Zealand during the 1970s and 1980s before his own death in late 2016.

Chum Ltd., controlled by the Waters family after its founding in the 1950s, bought City-TV in 1978. A year later, Switzer started work as a media research analyst at the Financial Post newspaper, and completed business undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario.

That led in 1983 to Switzer joining City-TV full-time as a program manager, from where he quickly rose through the ranks. City-TV was known for innovating with videographers working out of branded SUVs and a street-level camera in a phone booth at the corner of Queen and John Streets in Toronto that was called Speakers Corner.

In 1984, Switzer launched MuchMusic, a 24-hour music video channel that was Canada's equivalent of MTV. Other cable channels followed, including Fashion Television, Movie Television, Bravo!, Star!, Space, MuchMoreMusic and CP24, and local City-styled outlets in Ontario.

Switzer was key to Chum being the first Canadian broadcaster to sell its in-house programs internationally and to license formats to foreign broadcasters. In 1995, he was named vp programming for Chum Television, and in October 2000, he was promoted to president of Chum Television, responsible for the Toronto-based TV operations.

Then, in December 2002, the one-time switchboard operator became president and CEO of Chum Ltd, succeeding company founder Allan Waters, who had led the broadcaster as a family-run business for 47 years and showed enough faith in Switzer and his management team to put his company's future in their hands.

Ron Waters, son of Allan Waters and one-time executive vp and vice-chairman of Chum, worked with Switzer for 30 years and praised his steady hand on the wheel. "He had a flair for making the numbers work and was incredibly trustworthy. We have stayed friends since the company was sold, and I will miss him," he said. 

Ever humble and accessible, Switzer was also known for often picking up his own phone in the executive suite, delegating to loyal managers and taking programming risks. Since Chum couldn't afford to compete against bigger Canadian rivals for marquee and costly American programs, Switzer focused on movies and reruns of youth-oriented shows in primetime.

He and his programming team early on typically let market leaders CTV and Global Television fill their shopping baskets at the LA Screenings before he moved in to see what was left on the table for bargain-shopping. That changed in 2002, when Chum launched new City-TV stations in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, and bought some Craig TV stations in western Canada for increased national reach.

Besides his greater appetite for new U.S. network shows, Switzer also had an eye for studio movies out of Hollywood to fill his City-TV primetime schedule. And on the domestic front, Chum's locally produced shows like Movie Television and Fashion Television were sold widely internationally, as well as being adapted as formats.

On the local front, Switzer helped finance around 200 Canadian features. Without Chum's support, many may never have been made or got to air had Switzer not championed the filmmakers behind them. One was Hookers on Davies, a 1986 feature documentary by emerging directors Holly Dale and Janis Cole about prostitution in the underbelly of downtown Vancouver. 

"Jay took a great risk and ran it primetime on City TV when no one else would show it. That gesture opened many doors for myself and Janis. I hold him dear as a great contributor to my success," recalled Dale, whose recent TV directing credits include Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Quantico and the Law and Order franchise.

Dale and Cole weren't alone. Paul Bronfman, chairman and CEO of William F. White International, insisted Switzer was the first Canadian broadcaster to empower women in senior executive jobs. "He was secure. He was low-key as an individual. He was most loved as a broadcaster because Jay would read scripts, talk about characters and really engage with a producer in the show he was buying," said Bronfman, who had Switzer on his board of directors.

Switzer also mentored David Kines, a one-time vp of music and youth services at Chum Television, whose first major assignment at MuchMusic was to find a way to broadcast Nelson Mandela’s 1988 birthday concert from Wembley Stadium in London back to Canada. "He'd suggest you do something that you'd never done before, while also expressing such confidence in you that you somehow figured it out and got it done. That's the thing I'll remember the most from him — his confidence and encouragement in me and many others, and his innate belief in the goodness of people," Kines recalled.

Switzer's insistence on giving back after his own success in broadcasting was also echoed by Brad Danks, CEO of the LGBTQ-focused TV network OUTtv, where Switzer served on its board for 10 years. "Jay was unique within the Canadian broadcasting industry in being held in such high esteem for his knowledge, his integrity and his genuine desire to make the Industry better. He was a relentless connector, always looking for opportunities to help people grow their businesses and careers," said Danks. 

Others will remember Switzer as simply the ultimate TV junkie. "He lived and breathed the medium in the very marrow of his bones‎, and the channels he oversaw reflected his deep love and respect for the possibilities of the medium," said Paul Gratton, a one-time programming vp at Chum Ltd. from 1993-2007. "The Canadian television landscape was forever improved from his contributions and vision. We will all miss him deeply."

After stepping down from Chum after it was acquired by then CTVglobemedia for $1.3 billion in 2007, Switzer followed his wife, actress Ellen Dubin, to film and TV sets in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto.

On Dec. 11, 2017, Switzer, from his Toronto hospital bed, was invested into the Order of Canada by a representative for Julie Payette, the governor general of Canada, for his services to a Canadian industry to which he dedicated his life.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced, and a public celebration of Switzer's life and career will be held in the spring.