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From ‘Enslaved’ to ‘My Grandparents’ War,’ Big Name Talent Increase Interest in Factual Formats

The film world more often than not relies on the auspices of a project to drive audience members into the theaters for a strong opening weekend, but on the television side, where week after week performance is pivotal, things shake out a bit differently. This is especially true of the unscripted space, where a mix of talent, timely themes and repeat-viewing-friendly formats are essential.

“Clearly, having a superstar like Samuel L. Jackson helps draw attention to our series, but he’s not in the series playing the role of a superstar,” Simcha Jacobovici, executive producer and director of “Enslaved,” says of the six-episode hour-long documentary series from Associated Producers. “[He] cares about the subject matter and he’s made the story his own.”

Besides Jackson — who executive produces and hosts — and Jacobovici, “Enslaved” boasts the star power of author Afua Hirsch.

The series is a “boots on the ground” look at the transatlantic slave trade in which Jackson travels to Gabon to meet the tribe of his ancestors in one episode, but also focuses on an international diving team searching for long-sunk slave ships.

Those divers, Jacobovici says, are just as important on-screen presences to this storytelling: “They are articulate and show emotion. Viewers will identify with them. I think the best way to engage an audience is by entertaining and having on-screen characters that people can identify with.”

DRG takes a somewhat similar approach to its four-episode hour-long “My Grandparents’ War,” in that it follows actors such as Kristin Scott Thomas and Helena Bonham Carter on travels to historic locations where their family members fought during World War II. There, they explore how those six years of wartime changed their families’ trajectories.

Although Wild Pictures’ Tom Anstiss, executive producer of “My Grandparents’ War,” acknowledges the actors involved have “a huge fan base across the globe” that can help with international interest in the show, he feels the theme itself is universal enough to reach out to an even wider audience.

“Millions of our grandparents fought in World War II, but most chose not to talk about the war when they returned home,” he notes. “So although we all may know some family tales from the time, few of us are fully aware of the sacrifices our grandparents made — the friends they lost, the threats they faced and the conditions they endured.”

This show, he adds, is “full of revelation and emotion and [is] a moving reminder of how bravery, love and self-sacrifice prevailed in the face of tragedy.”

While the talent involved were integral to shaping the storytelling of “Enslaved” and “My Grandparents’ War,” Nippon TV’s unscripted formats “Red Carpet Survival” and “Sokkuri Sweets” utilize celebrities as a secondary element to a format. In “Red Carpet Survival,” contestants act as bodyguards for real (but still to-be-announced) celebrities, escorting them down a booby-trapped red carpet in the hour-long game show, while in “Sokkuri Sweets,” another hour-long game show, celebrities have to guess which items in front of them are pastries made to look identical to regular objects that range from shoes to plants.

“Nippon TV’s programs all start from concepts that are developed and refined until we can clearly see the entire show’s composition,” says Aki Harazono, format producer, international business development, Nippon TV. “It is only at this stage that we proceed with casting.”

Not relying too heavily on just name talent as the draw is key for the companies behind the series, especially as the celebrities are not in every episode. Therefore, the strength of the storytelling must stand on its own. But, as Anstiss puts it, collaborating with such industry heavy-hitters allows them to “deliver far better” end products.

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