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Impact and Development of Colour Television

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Technology
Wordcount: 1858 words Published: 6th Nov 2020

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Revolution of Color Television, 1950 – 1970

Television is now at every household and has become an ordinary thing. It has come far from being merely a conveniently entertaining piece of furniture; it has become an integral tool for understanding and shaping society. It is a device that has come to represent modern society and has undeniably changed the course of history over the past century. During an era of single-income households, television was the centerpiece of the living room and glue that brought the family- and the neighborhood-together and helped create shared experiences. Memorable musical performances, touching stories, and provocative news coverage would leave emotional marks on viewers and would create memories that would never forget.

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Back in the 1950s, television was a new technology, and it was mainly available in black and white. Although the earliest mention of color television was in a 1904 German patent for a color television system, the technology was not refined until 1950 (Bellis).  And it was on January 12, 1950, that the general public saw color television for the first time when Columbia Broadcasting System staged the first of a series demonstration ordered by the Federal that the color television prices were too high, screens were too small, and actual deliveries were too far away. Color television back in 1954 had the lowest cost at $700 and went up to $1295. Not only that, the services for color television would have cost around $200 to $300. After all that high price, the color television was available in 12 ½-inch size, which was dwarfed by 21-inch and 24-inch black and white models (Glenn, 12). Even if a customer were willing to compensate all these things, he/she would not be able to watch much color broadcast anyway, as, in 1954, not more than 30 stations out of 350 stations throughout the nation were equipped to handle color. As one person in 1954, said: “Why should I pay $1200 to see the Milton Berle in black-and-white when I can see him just as well on a $150 set?” (Glenn, 12).Communications Commission (The New York Times,1950). Even though color television was introduced to the general public, but it was a hard sell in the beginning. The main reason for this can be seen in the news article of Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly from 1954, which said

Although the general public was not into the color television at that time, the medical field found it an excellent tool for surgeons and medical students. Before color television, doctors relied on “wet clinics- instructional surgeries performed in front of a live audience at a medical meeting- to learn their craft” (Murray). Many medical educators did try to experiment with the filming surgeries in black and white film, but “some doctors complained that the feeds were only useful for viewing procedures on cadavers, which were usually drained of color” (Murray). The first demonstration of teaching surgery and medicine to medical students was in June 1949, at the convention of the American Medical Association. For the convention, the television equipment was provided by the Columbia Broadcasting System, Zenith Radio Corp., and the Webster-Chicago Corp. The surgery and diagnostic and other medical procedures were performed by the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. The convention was attended by 12,000 physicians at the Atlantic City Hospital (Barron’s National Business and Financial Weekly, 1949). After this successful convention, there was a surge in the use of color television in the medical field. It provided a more compelling and efficient replacement for wet clinics. Students were able to identify different organs and healthy tissues. It offered views of the internal workings of the body, which were both “highly detailed and multidimensional” (Murray). In 1973 autobiography, Peter Goldmark, the head of CBS lab and one of the inventors of color television, wrote. “The operations were so realistic that some of the viewers, including doctors, fainted in front of the television screens,” also adding that the impact of the color television was measured by counting the number of fainting. Goldman used his findings in the medical field and promoted his color television by claiming that “electronic color image of the surgery had even more psychological and visceral impact on viewers than watching it with their own eyes” (Murray).

After the discoveries of TV pioneers in the medical field, network executives, publicists, advertising companies, inventors, and television manufacturers started promoting color technology hard by reinforcing the notions of its perceptual, aesthetic, and emotional functionals. “They were trying to convince consumers that the liveness and immediacy of television, combined with the unique visual properties of electronic color, would provide them with an expansive and revelatory view on the world that they had never experienced before” (Murray). By 1958, there were an estimated 350,000 color sets in the United States, the bulk of which were manufactured by RCA (Zipser, 29). That number had jumped to 500,000 by early 1960 (The New York Times, 1960). Due to this surge of color television sets being sold, televisions channels like NBC, CBS, and ABC were given incentives to starts producing shows in color rather than black-and-white. In the early 1960s, Ernest Dichter, the era’s best-known consumer behavior analyst, studied the psychological and visual attentiveness of color television viewers at a renowned Institute for Motivational Research. He combined the Freudian analysis, observational methods, and interviews to get at the unconscious drivers of consumer behavior and decision-making. In his 157-page report, he argued that color television gave viewers a reduced sense of psychological distance, while also increasing levels of emotional involvement, empathy, creativity, comprehension, sociality, and immediacy. Color TV could intensify a sense of realism while simultaneously stimulating “a world of fantasy.” Color was also found to be “symbolic of innovation, progress, and modernity.” “Color,” the report concluded, “is symbolic of the better life” (Murray). NBC used this to get its sponsors on board with the idea of color. In 1965-1966 session, NBC planned to broadcast all but two shows in color; Only Convoy, because of the black-and-white stock footage, and I Dream of Jeannie, because of the expensive special effect cost, were the only ones to be aired in black-and-white (Adams,71). In January of 1966, around 70% of the combined prime time programming from the top three networks at the time- NBC, ABC, and CBS- was in color. According to Broadcasting magazine in 1966, almost 100% of NBC, 51% of CBS, and 49% of ABC's schedule were in color. By the start of 1966-1967 season, all programs were forced to switch to color, as all the three networks were broadcasting their entire prime time line-ups in color, aside from news specials and films originally shot in black-and-white (Gowran, 10). Switching to color from black-and-white wasn’t easy. According to Jack Chertok, producer of My Favorite Martian, changing to color caused a problem with the special effects. He told Broadcasting magazine in 1965 that, “Many of them depend on wires which we’ve kept hidden from the viewers by using black wires against a black background. Now we’ll have to use color matching the colored background. It will be harder, but it’s not impossible” (Broadcasting, 1965).

Because of this push in the prime-time line-ups for color content, sales of the color television also went up. According to Broadcasting magazine in 1965, NBC estimated that there were more than five million households with color television by January 1, 1966, which was 85% gain over January 1, 1965.

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Today, an 86-inch color television set with ultra-high-definition quality is available in the market, which is far beyond the 12½-inch color television, which was introduced in the market back in 1954. Technology has come far beyond what it was back in the1950s and 1960s, but that was the time when the color television became a household thing. There were many challenges along the way such as it was technologically cumbersome and too expensive. But at last, it was achieved and has been continued to improve better as time passes. “Comparing the significance of the invention of color television to the development of space rockets sounds ludicrous to us today, but color television was one of the most complex and transformative technological innovations of its time, symbolizing a unique and thoroughly modern form of seeing and representing” (Murray).


Primary Sources:

  • Adams, Val. “N.B.C. Will Boost Use of TV Color.” The New York Times, March 9, 1965.
  • Anonymous, “Color on the networks: well on the way to 100%.” Broadcasting. January 3, 1966.
  • Anonymous, "Color Television use by Medical Students to be Demonstrated." Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly (1942-Current File), Apr 18, 1949.
  • Anonymous, “Over 5 million color homes, according to NBC.” Broadcasting, February 7, 1966.
  • Anonymous, “Public Sees Color Television for First Time; Demonstration Is Ordered by the F.C.C.” The New York Times, January 13, 1950.
  • Anonymous, “R.C.A. Plans to Double Output of Color TV Sets, Sarnoff Says.” The New York Times, February 18, 1960.
  • Anonymous, “The big switch to color television.” Broadcasting, August 9, 1965.
  • Glenn, Armon. "The Business Front: Television Turmoil; Things Look Clearer in Black and White than in Color." Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly (1942-Current File),1954, sec. 34
  • Gowran, Clay. “Color TV bigger! better! brighter!” Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1966.
  • Zipser, Alfred R. “Color TV Ascends at Westinghouse.” The New York Times, February 24, 1958.

Secondary Sources:

  • Bellis, Mary. "The History of Color Television." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/color-television-history-4070934.
  • Murray, Susan. “Color TV Transformed the Way Americans Saw the World, and the World Saw America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, January 25, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/color-tv-transformed-way-americans-saw-world-world-saw-america-180971343/.


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