The long and winding road to color TV

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The story of color TV in America is your classic Goliath wannabe vs. David tale.
The Goliath wannabe at the time-1949-was CBS. The company had a booming broadcast business on radio and a record business as well, but it wasn’t as big as David. David was General David Sarnoff, the founder and guiding light of RCA. Like CBS, RCA was a major player in the radio business through its NBC subsidiary and was also in the record business. But unlike CBS-and this is key-RCA was a major manufacturer. Millions of radio sets in the marketplace were made by RCA.
And RCA was into the technology of the fairly new medium of television in a big way. The company made black-and-white TV sets, and the black-and-white TV transmission standards had been developed by RCA.
CBS, led by Bill Paley, thought it had an ace in the hole that could make CBS, not RCA, the manufacturing leader in this newfangled medium called TV: Peter Goldmark, CBS’s resident genius inventor.
For a number of years, Goldmark had been working on perfecting a color TV system-the Field Sequential System, which incorporated a color wheel to produce its high-quality results. From the beginning, its colors were remarkably rich and lifelike-just as vivid and true as early Technicolor, said those who saw it.
There was only one problem. Goldmark’s scheme wasn’t compatible with RCA’s black-and-white transmission system, and that black-and-white system was the one being used in all TV sets in the country.
RCA’s vision was of a massive rollout of black-and-white television followed by a compatible color television system years later when the technology was perfected.
At NBC and RCA, Goldmark’s spinning red, green and blue color disks were ridiculed as mechanical, impractical and, of course, worst of all, incompatible with RCA’s black-and-white receivers. In reality, though, the CBS system was simple and reliable, while RCA’s own early electronic versions of color television were just the opposite.
In 1949 and 1950, the Federal Communications Commission held a monumental series of hearings on the color television issue, with both CBS and RCA demonstrating their competing systems. By then, CBS had found an awkward solution to the compatibility question by demonstrating a newer version of its Field Sequential System that could switch back and forth between color and black-and-white.
On Sept. 1, 1950, the FCC gave the CBS system the thumbs-up as the color TV standard for the United States. RCA had not demonstrated, the FCC said, any acceptable color pictures.
The battle was joined: General Sarnoff was not about to lose a technology war to upstart CBS.
One advantage RCA had was the other black-and-white TV set manufacturers, who were enlisted by their economic self-interest on the RCA side.
RCA also brought suit against the FCC in late 1950, claiming that CBS’s color system was a technological throwback that would destroy the new TV industry. General Sarnoff directed a frenzy of engineering activity aimed at perfecting RCA’s complex all-electronic color system.
In the meantime, RCA was intent on selling more and more black-and-white sets. The more black-and-white sets in people’s homes, RCA reasoned, the more compelling the evidence that the government should reverse itself and approve a color system compatible with those sets.
The RCA lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, which, not surprisingly, in May 1951, upheld the FCC’s decision to endorse the CBS system as the nation’s color standard.
So for a few months in the summer of 1951, in New York and four other cities on the East Coast, there were color television broadcasts, with reds, greens and blues of unsurpassed vividness and clarity, where you could see programs with stars like Ed Sullivan and Mel Torme, and a weekday morning show called “Mike and Buff,” featuring a woman named Buff Cobb and her husband at the time, a young journalist named Mike Wallace.
But there was just one catch: There were next to no TV sets that could receive the CBS color broadcasts, and there were already more than 10 million sets that could receive black-and-white programming, with more RCA and RCA-sanctioned receivers flooding into the market every day.
CBS, gasping for one final chance to turn back the RCA tide, bought Hytron Radio and Electronics, primarily to get its hands on Hytron’s Air King TV set-manufacturing subsidiary. In September 1951, CBS began turning out color TV sets for $500 each.
But only one month later, with a new shooting war under way in Korea, the federal government’s National Production Authority summarily prohibited the further manufacture of color television sets, declaring their construction materials necessary for the war effort. By the time of the NPA ban, CBS had sold no more than 100 sets. CBS’s color broadcasts came to an abrupt end.
In 1953, the FCC reversed itself, approving the RCA scheme as the U.S. color standard.
Louis Chunovic is a senior editor at Electronic Media.