Cooking is Courtney White’s favorite at-home pastime. That’s not surprising, since at work she’s heating up the fortunes of Food Network.
As president of the Discovery Inc.-owned network, White last year led Food to a second-place finish among the most-watched cable networks in total day among women 18-49, its target demographic, per Nielsen. She accomplished the feat by stirring up a mix of shows such as Chopped and Kids Baking Championship, and expert cuisine ideas from well-known chefs and celebrities like Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, Valerie Bertinelli and Trisha Yearwood.
White’s interest in the entertainment industry began when she was 9 years old, growing up in Albany, New York, and her family invested in a video camera. “My parents bought it to record recitals and school plays and then kept it in what to me was a deliciously untouchable golden case,” she said. “One day, I asked them if I could start making movies, and to my surprise they said yes. So I started making movies with the local neighborhood kids.”
Early Movie Ambitions
She grew up to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, hoping to become a film producer. “The first person in the media industry who really stood out to me was Steven Spielberg, even though I had never met him,” she said. “He was just a phenomenon and he was the first filmmaker that I ever saw on the cover of Newsweek or whatever magazine was on my parents’ coffee table.”
Despite her love for movies, her first internship at NYU was on the small screen with PBS’s The Martha Stewart Show. It was there where she began to cultivate an affinity for the TV industry, and for cooking. “Once I interned there and other TV places in college, I really decided TV was for me,” she said. “I loved the storytelling of it as well as the pace and volume of it.”
White graduated NYU in 1997, just as the cable industry was beginning to blossom. She would work at HBO under the tutelage of legendary producer Sheila Nevins, as well as for Working Dog Productions, before taking a programming development job at HGTV in 2005. “I had actually never watched a frame of HGTV before the job posting came so I crammed HGTV [content], and that’s how I got into lifestyle TV,” she said.
At the time, HGTV was looking to build a brand beyond informational television by cultivating new talent. White said she was in the midst of the network’s expansion. “The Property Brothers [Jonathan and Drew Scott] were probably the first ones that our team identified and put on the air who really helped change the course of that network, and opened the doors for others like Chip and Joanna Gaines,” she said.
“It just became a real personality-based network.”
After developing iconic shows including Beachfront Bargain Hunt and Hawaii Life for HGTV, White became VP of program development and production for that network, along with DIY Network and GAC. She took her talents to Travel Channel in 2015 as senior VP of programming, then became executive VP and general manager of HGTV and Food Network in 2017. A year later she was named Food Network president.
White said Scripps Networks Interactive, which owned HGTV, Food, Travel, DIY and GAC before Discovery’s purchase in 2018, was a nurturing place for women executives.
“I feel very fortunate to have been in that particular environment because everywhere I looked there were other women who were role models,” she said, pointing to such executives as current Discovery Inc. chief lifestyle brands officer Kathleen Finch and former Food Network president Brooke Johnson.
Finch said White has an uncanny ability to step into multiple roles and be successful from both a business perspective and as a leader. “Courtney White possesses an energy, creative instinct and passion for developing outstanding content that would make her an invaluable executive anywhere and our portfolio of brands have been fortunate to have Courtney spearheading so many of the consumer and commercial successes our viewers devour, first at HGTV, then at Travel Channel and ultimately leading Food Network,” she said.
Looking ahead, White said she’s primed for the challenge of maintaining and continuing to build Food Network’s brand while fending off competitors in the genre. ■
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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