Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Wonderful World of Color

Happy 50th birthday, color TV!



Well, not really. A few media sources are celebrating the 50th anniversary of color TV just a bit early. Yes, the first color broadcasts aired in 1951, but these were in the CBS Field Sequential system, not the compatible RCA system that would become the NTSC standard for North America. The real birth of color TV as you, me, and that Quasar I've got down in the basement is concerned, was in 1953. It took two years of litigation and an FCC TV license freeze before that got settled, and even then the first color TV sets sold like... well, not like hot cakes. More like Edsels. There were only a few color specials that aired infrequently until around 1960 when better cameras, the advent of color videotape recording, and a more reliable "film chain" to transfer color motion picture film to electronic TV made more regular colorcasting possible.

According to The New York Times archives, the very first experimental show transmitted in the CBS system starred Milton Berle, which is rather startling considering Berle's regular show aired on NBC. Apparently, greater New York wanted to see Uncle Mitly in a dress in color.

Oh yeah, that was the other thing; color only existed in New York and Los Angles for many years. There was no Internet to download the shows, and no computers to download it with. No satellite distribution; Telstar was a decade into the future. Even the relatively simple coast-to-coast cable that would eventually link network affiliates was years away. Networks existed through TV stations picking up each other's broadcast signals and retransmitting them in a "daisy chain" configuration, or via cans of 16mm film shipped to the LA stations in transcontinental flights that surely must've strained the network budgets. (And in this grand tradition, most live prime time programming to this day is delayed to air at 8PM in the Pacific time zone. And now you know why you know why California gets the "American Idol" finale three hours after everyone on Facebook in the East has been spoiling it.) Coast-to-coast live color was science fiction until about 1953 after the FCC standardized the RCA/NBC color system. The video below, an NBC promotional piece of the period, tells us when the first Tournament of Roses parade aired via the network cable "backwards" from west to east. The images you see in this film, however, are film. This is a 16mm film. Remember: there was no color videotape yet. All the color imagery lavished over in this puff piece is not the work of RCA/NBC, but in all likelihood a product of Eastman Kodak. (And then somebody had to encode it to run on this viewer.)

But by whatever means, we had color TV in 1951. Got that? You see, America must have color TV before anybody else. There was talk that the ruskies were starting color TV broadcasts, and we don't want to be behind the reds, now do we? So... even though only a few hundred people in Manhattan could see it, we had color TV in 1951. Period.

Even after a compatible system was put on the air, Americans, by and large, preferred to wait until they could stop making payments on the black and white set they just bought before plunging into color. Television sets were expensive, and color was considered a luxury well into the 1960's. It really wasn't until around 1965-6 that the networks put a big push on color, upgrading nearly all prime time shows into color and putting "in color" on the opening title. The biggest impetus for buying a color set in those days, however, came from the increase in NFL and college football games now broadcast in color. The Baltimore Colts in color? Honey, you can get by driving that Falcon for another year. We're getting a new Zenith!

So happy birthday to color TV. Yeah, it was born in 1951. But like most children, it took about 15 years for it to show signs of maturity. And then we could see Barbara Eden's lovely pink costume in "I Dream of Jeannie" in beautiful color. But we still couldn't see her navel.

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