Monday, February 24, 2014

Color Television

Color television in the United States had a protracted history due to conflicting technical systems vying for approval by the Federal Communications Commission for commercial use. Mechanically scanned color television was developed by John Logie Baird in 1928, and a more complex system was demonstrated by Bell Laboratories in June 1929 (it used three complete systems of photoelectric cells, amplifiers, glow-tubes, and color filters, with a series of mirrors to superimpose the red, green, and blue images into one full color image).

In the electronically scanned era, the first color television demonstration was on February 5, 1940, when RCA privately showed to members of the FCC at the RCA plant in Camden, New Jersey, a television receiver producing images in color by a field sequential color system. CBS began non-broadcast color experiments using film as early as August 28, 1940, and live cameras by November 12. The CBS "field sequential" color system was partly mechanical, with a disc made of red, blue, and green filters spinning inside the television camera at 1,200 rpm, and a similar disc spinning in synchronization in front of the cathode ray tube inside the receiver set. RCA's later "dot sequential" color system had no moving parts, using a series of dichroic mirrors to separate and direct red, green, and blue light from the subject through three separate lenses into three scanning tubes, and electronic switching that allowed the tubes to send their signals in rotation, dot by dot. These signals were sorted by a second switching device in the receiver set and sent to red, green, and blue picture tubes, and combined by a second set of dichroic mirrors into a full color image.

The first field test of color television was by NBC (owned by RCA) on February 20, 1941. CBS began daily color field tests on June 1, 1941. These color systems were not compatible with existing black and white television sets, and as no color television sets were available to the public at this time, viewership of the color field tests was limited to RCA and CBS engineers and the invited press. The War Production Board halted the manufacture of television and radio equipment for civilian use from April 1, 1942 to October 1, 1945, limiting any opportunity to introduce color television to the general public.

The post-war development of color television was dominated by three systems competing for approval by the FCC as the U.S. color broadcasting standard: CBS's field sequential system, which was incompatible with existing black and white sets without an adaptor; RCA's dot sequential system, which in 1949 became compatible with existing black and white sets; and CTI's system (also incompatible with existing black and white sets), which used three camera lenses, behind which were color filters that produced red, green, and blue images side by side on a single scanning tube, and a receiver set that used lenses in front of the picture tube (which had sectors treated with different phosphorescent compounds to glow in red, green, or blue) to project these three side by side images into one combined picture on the viewing screen.

After a series of hearings beginning in September 1949, the FCC found the RCA and CTI systems fraught with technical problems, inaccurate color reproduction, and expensive equipment, and so formally approved the CBS system as the U.S. color broadcasting standard on October 11, 1950. An unsuccessful lawsuit by RCA delayed the world's first network color broadcast until June 25, 1951, when a musical variety special titled simply Premiere was shown over a network of five east coast CBS affiliates. Viewership was again extremely limited: the program could not be seen on black and white sets, and Variety estimated that only thirty prototype color receivers were available in the New York area. Regular color broadcasts began that same week with the daytime series The World Is Yours and Modern Homemakers.

While the CBS color broadcasting schedule gradually expanded to twelve hours per week (but never into prime time), and the color network expanded to eleven affiliates as far west as Chicago, its commercial success was doomed by the lack of color receivers necessary to watch the programs, the refusal of television manufacturers to create adaptor mechanisms for their existing black and white sets, and the unwillingness of advertisers to sponsor broadcasts seen by almost no one. In desperation, CBS bought a television manufacturer, and on September 20, 1951, production began on the first and only CBS color television model. But it was too little, too late. Only 200 sets had been shipped, and only 100 sold, when CBS pulled the plug on its color television system on October 20, 1951, and bought back all the CBS color sets it could to prevent lawsuits by disappointed customers.

Starting before CBS color even got on the air, the U.S. television industry, represented by the National Television Standards Committee, worked in 1950-1953 to develop a color system that was compatible with existing black and white sets and would pass FCC quality standards, with RCA developing the hardware elements. When CBS testified before Congress in March 1953 that it had no further plans for its own color system, the path was open for the NTSC to submit its petition for FCC approval in July 1953, which was granted in December. The first publicly announced experimental TV broadcast of a program using the NTSC-RCA "compatible color" system was an episode of NBC's Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953.

NBC made the first coast-to-coast color broadcast when it covered the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1 1954, with public demonstrations given across the United States on prototype color receivers. A few days later Admiral brought out the first commercially made color television set using the RCA standards, followed in March by RCA's own model. Television's first prime time network color series was The Marriage, a situation comedy broadcast live by NBC in the summer of 1954. NBC's anthology series Ford Theatre became the first color filmed series that October.

NBC was naturally at the forefront of color programming because its parent company RCA manufactured the most successful line of color sets in the 1950s, and by 1959 RCA was the only remaining major manufacturer of color sets. CBS and ABC, which were not affiliated with set manufacturers, and were not eager to promote their competitor's product, dragged their feet into color, with ABC delaying its first color series (The Flintstones) until 1962. The DuMont network, although it did have a television-manufacturing parent company, was in financial decline by 1954 and was dissolved two years later. Thus the relatively small amount of network color programming, combined with the high cost of color television sets, meant that as late as 1964 only 3.1 percent of television households in the U.S. had a color set. NBC provided the catalyst for rapid color expansion by announcing that its prime time schedule for fall 1965 would be almost entirely in color (the exception being I Dream of Jeannie). All three broadcast networks were airing full color prime time schedules by the 1966–67 broadcast season. But the number of color television sets sold in the U.S. did not exceed black and white sales until 1972, which was also the first year that more than fifty percent of television households in the U.S. had a color set.

(This article adapted from one I co-wrote for

1 comment:

  1. I found the development of color television fascinating. In contrast to the rapid developments in the other technologies we have studied, color was a long, arduous process to make it to the mainstream. When you think that mechanical tv added color in the late 20s, it took 20 years before electronically-scanned tvs first broadcast in 1940. And it took another 20 years, until the 60s, before shows began to be filmed entirely in color.

    I think this speaks of the complexity of a technology we all take for granted today.