'Summer Camp' Preview: USA Gets Nostalgic in Second Original Reality Series

USA Network
The cast of "Summer Camp"

The reality competition, which debuts Thursday, pits 16 players against one another in what's described as "a super fun, frothy, soapy show rooted in real-life experiences."

Bonfires, first kisses, s'mores -- and even wedgies. Remember summer camp?

USA Network aims to take viewers on a nostalgia trip with its new reality series, the appropriately titled Summer Camp, which debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday. The eight-episode show, from Big Brother producers Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan and Sony Pictures TV, features 16 adult campers who will compete in various challenges; at the end of the competition, the winning camp's remaining contenders will split a $250,000 cash prize. American Idol alum Matt Rogers hosts.

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"We wanted to create a competition series that has a lot of layers, and summer camp seemed like the perfect world to allow that to happen," Meehan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "In addition to the game, romance, comedy and heart were just as important parts of the show to us. Summer camp seemed like the world where all that stuff happens naturally."

Each of the competitors has been labeled with an archetype, such as "the geek," "the flirt" and "the mean girl." Meehan says that producers weren't necessarily looking for people who would fit certain labels, but the most interesting people who emerged from the pack tended to fit certain types.

"We definitely wanted a really diverse group of people from all walks of life," he says. "We also were looking for people who really wanted to go back to summer camp for specific reasons -- one girl went to a Mormon summer camp as a kid and wanted a [different kind of] experience, another got kicked out for playing pranks, another lost his virginity and wanted to go back."

The series, shot at a lakeside retreat in Big Bear, Calif., also will feature competitors taking part in such challenges inspired by iconic camp activities including canoe races, spin the bottle, swim tests, arts and crafts and fishing. One s'mores-themed challenge, for example, finds competitors hanging onto giant marshmallows while being hit with chocolate; if they fall, they land in a huge vat of graham crackers.

For USA, Summer Camp marks the network's second original reality series following the Kurt Warner-hosted The Moment earlier this year. Heather Olander, senior vp reality development at USA, said the format was one that network executives sparked to immediately.

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"The concept immediately takes you back to a time and place in your life, and so many people went to summer camp," she says, quipping that the competitors all "reverted to being 15 again" once they were put into the camp environment, with cliques and alliances forming pretty quickly.

"Our programming push is in the summertime, so it made sense as one of our summer series," she adds. "Our scripted series feature really strong, fun, iconic characters, and we were able to do the same here. We knew it was perfect for us."

While The Moment didn't become a hit for the network, USA remains committed to its reality programming strategy.

"It's early days in reality for us," Olander says. "Our audience is loyal to all our scripted shows, but it's a matter of figuring out what show they're going to respond to [in reality]. Going forward, we're going to be looking for shows like Summer Camp that feature great characters and amazing stories. In terms of format, we're very agnostic. But we're being very patient and strategic about how we launch our shows."

Coincidentally, USA's corporate sibling NBC debuted a summer camp-themed series, the scripted Camp, on Wednesday night. Olander says she believes both series can "coexist" on TV.

"We didn't have conversations about it, but they clearly recognized what we recognized: Summer camp has a very immediate appeal and makes perfect sense for summer," she said. "They went down the scripted road, and it's completely different than our series. But the two can absolutely coexist, as when Desperate Housewives and Real Housewives were on, and viewers experienced two totally different shows." (Desperate aired on Disney-owned ABC, while the Real Housewives franchise is on NBCUniversal's Bravo.)

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Asked why summer camp is somewhat of a mini-genre right now, Holly Jacobs, executive vp syndication and reality programming at Sony Pictures TV, says the topic appeals to a range of viewers. She points out that most people have experienced summer camp at some point in their lives.

"It taps into the universal truths of life," she says. "We're taking people out of their everyday life and sending them back to a nostalgic period of their life. This is a way for them to go back and seek redemption or relive this great journey they had. It's a moment that meant so much to people, and viewers will connect to the emotional element."

She adds: "It's also a super fun, frothy, soapy show rooted in real-life experiences we've all had. It's a fun ride with a lot of heart."