Color TV turns 50

The first coast-to-coast color TV broadcast was the Jan. 1, 1954, Tournament of Roses Parade

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 10:08 p.m.

America's first color televisions hit the market a half century ago this year, but many Americans did not enjoy it until years later when set prices dropped and consumers heard their favorite shows were suddenly in color.

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RCA Victor developed and tested several color television systems, including this 1951 prototype before the FCC adopted RCA's technology as the national broadcast standard in December 1953.

David Sarnoff Library

``It was a chicken and egg thing,'' recalls David Arland of Thomson Inc., which makes RCA televisions. RCA Victor color televisions initially were the most popular. ``You weren't going to buy a color television unless there was something on it that you wanted to watch in color.''

Today, 98 percent of U.S. households have one or more televisions, and 99 percent are color sets, The World Almanac reports from a 2002 survey.

The first Admiral color television using the current national transmission standard was sold Dec. 30, 1953, says Tom Genova, amateur TV historian, retired Ford auto engineer and creator of the Web site www.tvhistory .tv.

The first coast-to-coast color TV broadcast was the Jan. 1, 1954, Tournament of Roses Parade on NBC, according to Alex Magoun, executive director of the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton, N.J. Sarnoff has been recognized as the driving force to get RCA Laboratories to successfully develop the national color TV analog standard adopted in 1953 by the Federal Communications Commission.

RCA owned NBC when color television was in its infancy. With many color TV sets ready to sell, RCA made NBC the first network leader in number of hours of color programming.

In August 1954, New York residents - if they had a color television - could see only one color TV show, Arland recalls.

During 1956, there were 486 hours of color programs, and by 1964 all three broadcast networks had a lot of shows in color, Magoun says. NBC was first to air all new programs in color.

Nine years after the FCC adopted the RCA national color standard, replacing a temporary standard promoted by CBS, the RCA Victor color TV company finally broke even on its investment, Magoun says, and remained profitable after that. Magoun is writing a book about the entire history of television - from various dreams since the 1870s to reality and acceptance.

``RCA was losing their shirts'' financially for years, he says, but Sarnoff kept NBC and RCA on track toward the eventual profits. Many other TV makers switched to color when they saw RCA's impending success.

Early color TV development used three picture tubes - red, green and blue - and filters and mirrors to project one color image. Magoun says the early models were as big as a refrigerator, needed realignment of internal parts if someone bumped into the cabinet, and were not likely to be welcomed into the tiny living rooms of the day.

The Sarnoff library has more TV history and 30,000 photographs available on its Web page, www.david

Genova, 54, began his fascination with television as a college student fixing televisions part time. After Ford Motor Co. gave him a buyout to take early retirement, he began finding old televisions on the eBay online auction site. This began a strong, growing interest in TV history. He now owns about 30 old sets, including three from the 1930s.

The initial RCA Victor sets cost $1,000 in 1954. Arland notes consumers that year also could buy a Chevrolet car for roughly the same price, so color TV sales were at first a tough sell.

People wondering what brand and model television set their family had at different milestones can jog their memory on Genova's Web site, which provides many photographs of models sold over the years.

``People love this,'' he says. ``I'm loving the fact that I can make a contribution to society and share this information.''

It was not until 1972 that more color sets were sold than black and white sets, Genova says, and then the color set sales kept climbing.

Consumers were able to see color movies at theaters in the 1930s, so it still baffles historians why it took so long for color televisions to dominate most households.

But now, 50 years later, consumers are hooked on color sets and wondering when they should upgrade to high-definition televisions on much larger screens. Again, few programs so far are broadcast in HDTV. But the FCC in 2002 ordered that nearly all televisions by 2007 include the state-of-the-art, clear-picture tuners.

What about the long-term future?

Genova says it will be exciting to see 3D televisions some day without special glasses - being able to view your favorite actors floating in space before you and talking as you look at them from different angles.

``That will be the next leap,'' he says.

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