TV History: Christmastime and Color Television

When I was a kid, children's books had holiday stories about getting in the family car and driving to Grandma's farm. (Schoolbooks back then were usually old and worn, and the cars in the pictures had that lumpy round prewar look, so strange to “modern” kids of the Fifties). Amid the ducks and the horses and the sheep, they'd chop down a tree at dawn on Christmas morning and decorate it with candles and strings of popcorn. Then, after a big country breakfast, they'd go to church. More strange stuff: they had “ministers”, not priests, and they were addressed as “Doctor” or “Reverend”, not as “Father”. Weird place, the American countryside. We used to wonder if it really existed.

Christmas was nothing like that where we lived. This was the New York City of The Honeymooners era, of West Side Story. You see a bit of it in The Godfather. For the price of a subway token, you could visit Macy's, Gimbels, the F.A.O. Schwartz toy store, the gigantic Lionel train layout at Madison Hardware on 23rd Street, and the big tree at Rockefeller Center, a convenient stroll from St. Patrick's Cathedral. (Protestants had their own cathedral farther uptown, St. John the Divine.) New York was always a city of tiny apartments. Back then it was also a time of big families; I was the oldest of six boys. Everyone had lots of relatives nearby. Grandparents almost invariably had European accents of one kind or another (In my family, a thick Scottish burr; in my wife's family, Yiddish). The city's churches and synagogues were packed year-round, but Easter/Passover and Christmas/Hanukkah took it to the highest level.

In the outside world, the Cuban Missile Crisis had just happened. Kennedy was regarded as “our” president—Catholic, that is—and his picture was up in nearly every barbershop. The newsletter of the Knights of Columbus always referred to the President as “Brother Knight, John”. Christmastime 1962 had no inkling of what Christmastime 1963 would be like.

Just like now—in fact, much more than now—Christmas specials made TV a must-see for families. And there was no better way to see the shows than to visit those rare relatives who had color TV, the better to see the glories of Christmas with Perry Como, Andy Williams, Walt Disney, and the Cartwright boys on Bonanza. One of my uncles in the Bronx had color, so we trooped up there annually to park the crowded streets, climb flights and flights of stairs and watch TV together. In 1962, the season's big hit was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, with music by actual Broadway composers (their next job was writing “People” for Barbra Streisand). Walt Disney called the producers the morning after NBC ran Magoo. Ol' Walt was never noted for being particularly generous to rivals, but he told them they'd created something not just for their children, but for their children's children's children. Pretty big compliment coming from him.

Color television was magic then. People would stand in front of TV store windows, fascinated by even the commercials. But almost nobody actually had a set; out of roughly 80 million TVs sold, by 1962 color, on sale for eight years had slowly, painfully climbed to nearly a million; about 1 percent of the American market. Yet everyone loved it, and everyone wanted it. So why was it so rare? Because it was unbelievably expensive, roughly the cost of three “regular” black and white TVs. In 1954, it cost $1000, equivalent to a modest little $9,268 today. By 1962, it cost $495 (a mere $4,078 today). By 1970, most new sets were color, and people began replacing their black and white sets faster. Only a few years earlier, though, color TV was like jet travel; a futuristic luxury mostly reserved for the well to do.

The TV specials helped sell color sets. Magazines were full of ads showing family dads, all but smothered with affection for bringing home color for Christmas. NBC was owned by RCA, the mighty Radio Corporation of America, the strongest and richest electronics company in the world. RCA sank a fortune into developing color and was stuck with the solitary job of putting it over with the public. That's why they paid a mint to pull Disney away from ABC and bring him to NBC. The fact that his show was named “Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color” tells you all you need to know about their motivations. Disney had only two sponsors, RCA (which owned the network) and Kodak, the other major American corporation that stood to make lots of money from widespread adoption of color.

As for us, we ended up being the first family on the block to get color, late in 1963. it was still expensive, but my dad had friends in the Teamsters Union that were able to provide sets that had somehow “fallen off a truck”, landing right on the serial numbers. My wife's family never did get color until I gave my father-in-law a set in the mid-Eighties; they shared what Jonah Goldberg once described as “My people's traditional resistance to unnecessary expenditure”. Pretty soon, black and white was restricted to closed circuit security cameras, and old re-runs. As time went by, most local TV stations wouldn't even bother buying or running black and white shows.