TV History: TV’s Color Wars. Autumn 1946, '49, '51 and '53

The colorful autumn leaves had fallen and the season’s final tourists all packed and left, weeks ago. In the early chill of the fall of 1946, in one of New York’s once-numerous plush summer resorts north of the city, a group of CBS executives were hosting a lavish, no-limits private dinner for a selected number of officials of the Federal Communications Commission. After brandy and cigars, they went to see the secret purpose of their out of town meeting: the first over the air demonstration of color television. It was on a private frequency, not for broadcasting. By all accounts, it went over smashingly well, making instant converts of technical skeptics, who were unanimous: It looked gorgeous. Looking especially gorgeous in color was the hostess, the official Miss CBS Color Girl, with the chromatically charmed name of Patty Painter. The FCC men, who seem to have been respectable married middle-aged men with lively eyes too easily tempted to roam, were smitten. The CBS man shrewdly lifted a phone handset and told them to talk to her. They watched, as transfixed as corrupt Biblical judges, as the polychrome angel in a Manhattan studio thirty miles away answered their questions with a gentle smile.

The demonstration included film clips and a fashion show. The men from Washington all but stood up and cheered. Color TV had arrived, and no one could doubt it now. Early color was finicky, and it would be Patty’s job and that of other women for the next seven years to continue to sit under the hot lights, letting CBS technicians adjust the equipment to transmit (Caucasian) skin tones properly and attractively.

CBS seemed to have something almost magical that no one else could match, but they had an urgent problem: their type of color TV was incompatible with what had already become regular, black and white TV. Without an unwelcome add-on box at an add on expense, the TVs then being sold wouldn’t show any useful picture at all when tuned to CBS color. TV technical standards are complex, an all or nothing thing.

But CBS had reason to hope. Even fifteen months after WWII ended, there were only about 12,000 TV sets operating in the whole country, most in bars or other public places. If America was going to more or less wholesale junk the TV system they’d agreed on right before the war, this was just about the last exit ramp before black and white TV got too popular to kill. The FCC had no qualms, after all, about killing off the entire existing prewar FM user base by radically shifting frequencies in the name of future progress. If they’d abandon black and white, also chalking it up to prewar experimentation, maybe the nation could just skip that phase of TV altogether and start anew with color.

Even the innocent appeal of Miss CBS Color wasn’t enough to make the FCC stop black and white TV in its tracks. CBS took smartly designed full page ads in major magazines like Life, with celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso promoting their color TV system, not yet on the market, as “Television Worth Waiting For”. It says something about allegedly narrow-minded postwar America that the network seemed to think that a pair of distinguished left-wing Europeans once noted for underage sex scandals would put Field Sequential color television over with the educated classes who decided these things.

Unfortunately for CBS, by 1948 television was now selling in the hundreds of thousands per year, so they suggested a shrewd compromise idea, similar to what would later happen in Europe: keep today’s black and white TVs on the lower VHF frequencies. Have nothing but broadband color in the (then) wide open spaces of the UHF (Ultra High Frequencies). Broadcast the same thing on both of them. Eventually, the black and white side would gradually get phased out. Britain did it that way. This anticipated a longer, slower phase-out of radio as the nation’s primary source of entertainment. That suited CBS just fine, as it and its radio affiliates were enjoying record profits; why push obsolescence? Why not give radio another ten years and more gradually shift over to a better form of television? That, not an artistic affection for the colors of the rainbow, has long been suspected to be CBS founder and chief Bill Paley’s real goal: delay TV. On the other hand, RCA and its subsidiary NBC had a fortune tied up in television manufacturing and wanted that investment freed up to get some of that money back—fast. Anything that created years of uncertainty among set buyers was bad for RCA.

A lot of money was on the line. The FCC put a four-year freeze on new station licenses until this color thing could be worked out. But people weren’t waiting. They bought black and white sets.

The CBS color system scanned its picture electronically, on a black and white picture tube, but a spinning color wheel in front of the screen was synchronized with the camera at the TV station. People now call it primitive and “mechanical”, but how many of your computers still have “mechanical” disk drives, seventy years later? The CBS system didn’t demand a spinning wheel, but its virtue was it allowed the use of one as a low-cost alternative to what would turn out to be a vastly more expensive alternative, a full color, “three color” picture tube. For all its limitations, a CBS color set would have been roughly 50% higher than the cost of a black and white set, not what later sets turned out to be, 300-400% higher. Color TV would have been available to more people, perhaps as much as a decade earlier than when it finally caught on commercially. The spinning wheel certainly restricted the size of the picture, but when a fully electronic color picture tube was finally available, CBS color could have used it; it wasn’t inherently mechanical.

The debate over color TV had reached fever pitch by the autumn of 1949 when the much-liked CBS system would be matched in public FCC tests against an all-electronic challenger from tech giant RCA, parent company of NBC. For the month of October, it was freakishly hot in Washington and hotel air conditioning was still primitive. The TV demonstrations required that the windows be closed and shades drawn, making things even hotter. Wilting under the heat, RCA’s color system, the future’s champion, was a stumbling chump. It did have the crucial advantage of compatibility. When everything worked right, they were able to modulate the added color over a black and white picture so everyone could see it. It wouldn’t require replacing black and white sets.

Unable to use the simple color wheel, RCA’s interim color set was a refrigerator-sized wooden box that contained three separate black and white sets whose pictures were combined with the use of half-silvered mirrors and red, green and blue filters.

RCA TV color systemRCA engineers made the best of this working, but impractical “set”, claiming that a simple color picture tube was on its way. Each of the sets in the box had about 30 tubes and radiated unbearable heat, breaking down prematurely in the oven-like hotel ballroom. Literally sweating it out, RCA engineers managed to make adjustments and provide a halfway decent picture by the end of the demo period, but early press jeers about blurred World Series players with three out of sync arms were hard to live down.

CBS was triumphant, and shortly thereafter their “spinning wheel” system was declared the legal standard for color television for the United States. In a bizarre twist, no doubt explainable in con man-ology, Paley and his corporate lieutenants forgot their actual goal—slow TV’s spread while milking radio profits—and got carried away with the rare ability to gloat over Colonel Paley giving General Sarnoff a shiner. RCA and most of the rest of the electronics manufacturing industry protested the FCC decision vigorously, and lawsuits blocked its implementation for a year and a half, to no avail. When other manufacturers refused to make the sets, CBS defiantly bought their own factory and put their color TV wizard, Peter Goldmark, in charge of making TV sets to the new standard.

So, in the glowing autumn of 1951, five years since Patty Painter chatted on the telephone to the Washington gentlemen at the Tappan Zee Inn, CBS was ready to go on the air, showing off their monopoly in color television with a series of weekend spectaculars. But since their UHF-only ideas never got off the ground, the color broadcasts would have to take place over CBS’s regular black and white stations. The handful of CBS color sets could receive the pictures, but everyone else saw rolling lines. Their own owned-and-operated TV stations raised a fuss, so the audience-killing unviewable color broadcasts were restricted to Sunday before prime time. Football was going to bring in viewers and sell CBS color sets; not a bad idea, but a little premature. After a mere eight weeks of getting pummeled and losing viewers for their evening shows, CBS quietly threw in the towel. Cleverly, they got the Korean-era War Production Board to declare that providing strategic materials for luxuries like color TV would have to be deferred, postponed for the duration of the national emergency. This got their heads out of the commercial noose that they’d made for themselves.

RCA all-electronic color system 1953And thus, it was that two years later, in the fall of 1953, the FCC approved an all-electronic color system, basically RCA’s with a few ego-salving concessions to other manufacturers. This time it was finally for real. The new sets cost $1000, half as much as a car. The industry was geared up to produce as many as 200,000 of them after the turn of the new year.

At that price, they sold 5000 of them.

As the Fifties approached the end of the decade, the pioneers of television, like Philo Farnsworth, David Sarnoff and Allen B. DuMont were retired or rapidly fading from the picture. The so-called younger generation, the color TV inventors like RCA’s George Brown and CBS’s Peter Goldmark, were also now seeing the peaks of their careers in the rear-view mirror. They’d help make the miracle of coast to coast television, increasingly in color, a reality in most sizable towns in America. During the war and afterwards, that was part of the future that we were expecting. There was an autumnal snap in the air as the men, suddenly older looking than their file pictures in newsrooms, each announced that they were stepping back from public life.