Following a successful November 2019 test run, investigative entertainment and pop culture magazine show “Central Ave,” co-created by Will Packer and Monique Chenault, is back with a full-season order.
The infotainment show, which returned for its full 2020-2021 season on Saturday, Sept. 26, takes a deep dive into the most talked-about and provocative topics of the week. It’s hosted by veteran entertainment reporter Julissa Bermudez of BET’s “106 & Park” and “Empire Girls,” and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross.
Seasoned executive producer and content creator Chenault also serves as showrunner for the series and spoke with Atlanta Black Star about what inspired its creation and makes it stand out among the wide variety of entertainment news programming that is currently on the market, namely that they’re “more about depth than we are about breadth.”
“There’s such a dearth of African-American news programming. We thought that we needed to tell impactful stories, ones that obviously celebrates Black excellence, upper mobility, success on a celebrity and entertainment level, but also one that talks about the pop-cultural impact that our audience is a part of creating,” Chenault told ABS. “We believe the audience is a big part of driving pop culture, especially in 2020. So we wanted to be really respectful of that as well.”
Each episode, the show takes an insightful look at three stories that are making headlines. From there, the team uses investigative research to try to get a deeper understanding of their subjects, and why the stories are resonating with their audiences. “We take three stories, we research them very thoroughly,” said the five-time Emmy Award nominee. “We talk to a lot of experts. All of our pieces are fully informed by that wisdom. And then we’re all about them being multi-layered and multi-dimensional… We really are trying to investigate it. We’re trying to look at why is this dominating the social discourse of this week.”
The show’s hosts, Julissa and Sanya, have made history as the first two women of color to host an entertainment magazine show, but Chenault revealed that she and Packer weren’t originally planning on having two female hosts. “We cast a net pretty far and wide. We were just looking for people that had a spark. And we didn’t set out to cast two women, by the way… it really was about who do we think was really interested and passionate about the kind of stories that we could tell, that we wanted to tell,” the showrunner said.
“We just felt that [Julissa and Sanya] were two women who came from very, very different worlds, and brought very different skillsets to the show,” she went on to explain. “And there was just something that was very raw, particularly with Sanya’s talent. Obviously Julissa is poised, and she’s been in this space before. But they both had really interesting background stories. And when we heard them talk about the kind of content that we wanted to cover in the show, it was clear that they were the best people to front these stories and help drive them.”
The series also features a diverse group of skilled correspondents with different areas of expertise: Van Lathan, formerly of TMZ, Kennedy McCollough, Sloane Glass, Melissa McCarty, Neima Abdulaha and Zach Greenburg. “We put together a group of correspondents that we felt gave us credibility in each of those pop culture adjacent spaces. So we could tell stories that, even though they have celebrity news picks, they are related to other kinds of fields, like of course sports, and today’s social justice, and big money stories, and we do some finance stories, and celebrity legal stories and crime stories.”
After sustaining a successful more than 20-year career that has led her to produce for a variety of entertainment shows, including “Entertainment Tonight,” “The Insider,” “Access Hollywood” and more, Chenault has had a front-row seat to the diversity issues within the entertainment industry. In her experience, seeing more Black and brown faces in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily signal significant change, especially when the real decision-makers are the ones behind the camera. “I would say that news programming is probably one of the least diverse genres of television, probably the least diverse.”
“I think that people look at Black anchors, and they think that it’s more diverse, because it’s almost like an oxymoron,” Chenault explained. “There’s much more diversity in front of the camera, because they know that they have to represent what America is. But if you turn the cameras around, there’s no diversity behind it. And these are the people that are crafting stories…and there’s nobody there to check them. That is really dangerous when it comes to us trusting our free press.”
Diversity behind the cameras also means telling the right stories the right way, Chenault said. It’s a personal philosophy of Chenault’s to not only “cover Black artists when they are arrested or going to jail,” but to cover their triumphs and good news as well.
“From a storytelling perspective, whoever is at the helm has enormous responsibility,” she explained. “When you’re picking and choosing stories every week, for we hope millions of people will watch, we hope, across the country are going to watch, I take it really seriously that we are representing, number one, that we’re representative of this audience, that has supported us so much, but also that we’re respectful of the things that they want to know. And it’s only natural that that is informed by your own trajectory, your own background, where you come from and your experiences.”
With the lines between entertainment news and hard news becoming more and more blurred, Monique takes her responsibility of delivering truth to audiences very seriously. “More people get their information sometimes from here and late night shows than they do from any place else.”
It’s Chenault’s hope that “Central Ave” will help close the news diversity gap both on and off-screen, in addition to informing and educating audiences. “We are aiming for it to be the perfect blend of entertaining and informational. So we always call it infotainment. We want people to come and have a lot of fun with us, but maybe learn a couple of things along the way as well.”
To find out more about Central Ave, including when it airs near you, go to centralavetv.com.