TV History Thursday: Getting In on the Ground Floor Cheaply, 70 Years Ago

 

It’s 1948. After the war, it seemed like everyone was impatient for television to reach them, but incredible as it seems now, radio station owners had a hard time deciding whether or not going into television was worth the financial risk. There were two competing, less expensive prewar experiments ready to be big time postwar realities: FM and facsimile. FM got shafted almost immediately, when the FM frequency bands were abruptly shifted upwards, making every existing prewar FM radio in the country useless. It would take until the mid-to-late Sixties before the superior quality of FM gave it most of the music audience, by then a rock audience. AM went from being “radio,” period, to something you listened to in your car.

Facsimile was a more revolutionary technology, like television. And it was no mere theory: some of the country’s largest newspapers prepared nightly fax editions, so every farmhouse could have a morning newspaper sitting and waiting for them at the breakfast table, with no intervening printing presses, unions, or delivery vehicles. Overnight radio audiences weren’t big anyway, so using the time to transmit newsprint was a shrewd way to make some money off a new medium at low additional cost. The faxes included clippable coupons for deals with advertisers. In those days, though, dense networks of steam locomotives, interurban freight, and delivery boys on bicycles did an adequate job of carrying newspapers to all but the most remote corners of the country. It’s fascinating to note, though, that mass faxing by radio almost made it.

After the War, a decision by the Federal Communications Commission “froze” TV licenses and building permits while the FCC was able to establish by practical test just how many miles had to separate stations broadcasting on the same channel. This meant incumbent stations that opened in the interim with pre-’49 permits enjoyed virtual, and sometimes actual monopolies in their local TV markets. As any capitalist worth his or her salt knows, a monopoly means you charge more—a lot more. In cities like Detroit, Houston, and Fort Worth, having the first station to achieve dominance generally meant keeping it well into the later Fifties, when real competition was entering the scene almost everywhere.

Suppose you’re not Houston. You’re not Pittsburgh. You’re not even Salt Lake City or El Paso in terms of population, and therefore, advertising revenue. Let’s look at the market realities of being present at the creation of a new medium, 65-70 years ago, of American TV as the country gradually extended TV inland from the coasts.

Let’s say you’re Longview, TX, or Casper, WY, or Binghampton, NY. Because of distance, or local topography, you’re a little outside of the clear signal of any yet-established bigger city station, so you’ve got a shot at dominating a regional advertising market. How do we know what the clear signal area is? Well paid engineering consultants determine by experiment because it’s a function of the power of the transmitter, the height of the antenna above sea level, and strangely enough, mysterious factors of ground conductivity. That gives you your map for advertisers. The dollar size of that market, not the innate interest of the locals in television, determined where stations would be built and where they would survive. By then, radio advertising had long divided the country into sales zones, each with a known economic level and population. There was only so much advertising that could be sold to such a market, TV, radio, and newspapers. That’s a major reason why stations that survived the early days were often owned by radio stations and newspapers.

So you’ve listened to RCA’s General David Sarnoff, made your bet on video, and you’re ready to take the financial plunge. Bravo! But be ready for the bottom line facts: TV stations cost about ten times as much as radio stations, cost ten times as much to keep operating, and in the Forties still only generate about five to seven times the advertising revenue of radio. In other words, an early TV license is a license to slowly lose money. But if you did it carefully enough, you and your station survived into a time when those ad revenues would double, triple, and then leap into the clouds — 20, 30 times what seemed possible back in Harry Truman’s day.

How little did it take? RCA and its main competitors, General Electric and Du Mont Laboratories, offered a basic package for $100,000 (equivalent to $1.2 million in today’s dollars) for a five-kilowatt transmitter, a minimal control room, and a telecine multiplexer, not much more than a classroom-quality 16mm film projector and a slide projector beaming into a specialized pickup tube. You sited it by looking at that bullseye radio wave coverage map and compromising an ideal antenna location with nearby road access and the local electric power company’s willingness to run a high wattage, potentially high-profit line to the middle of nowhere. The power company was often also a contractor on building an antenna mast.

For your first years in the TV business, that’s the center of your world. There’s often a daily delivery run from the airport, bringing in and out the 16mm films that make up most of the station’s programming. “The Cisco Kid,” “The Adventures of Superman,” and “I Love Lucy” could be threaded up and ready to run at 8 pm, just like it ran in New York or New Orleans. A slide-in between the shows with a prerecorded announcer on quarter-inch tape made this one-man show a more professional illusion. You weren’t a network, not yet, but you could look like it.

For all practical purposes videotape just flat-out didn’t exist until 1956, even for the major networks, and even in the early Sixties, video tape recorders continued to be costly magic that was reserved (at $70,000 a pop) for the big three networks as well as the largest, most prosperous independent stations in big markets.

From 1948 onwards, 16mm newsfilm came in daily from a variety of paid sources. Even if you didn’t have a network affiliation, you could still buy a daily newsfilm subscription service from AP, UPI, and Hearst, among others that would come and go, plus the networks’ own syndication companies. In smaller markets left off of AT&T’s national coaxial TV cable grid, the film, hurriedly copied in New York, was at least a day old. But audiences back then were used to movie newsreels that were at least a week old.

In those days news announcers were usually careful to be vague about the time and date of a speech since clips would be aired for days as needed to fill time: “The President spoke at the AFL-CIO convention,” or “This week, the United States vetoed a UN resolution. Here is the statement of the US delegate”. It may not exactly have been like seeing “history written in lightning,” as that wily old racist Woodrow Wilson is said to have described The Birth of a Nation. But it was still a novel experience for most Americans, regardless of its imperfections.

Stations were also offered industrial documentaries that were basically free advertising for entities like Florida resorts, the rice industry, or the Chrysler Corporation. This is the kind of filler that might run if a promised show didn’t arrive on time.

So far, a TV schedule like the one I described could really be called Radio Movies; it’s all films, slides, and announcements. That got by in the earliest days when any kind of TV was still amazing. Daily schedules in 1948-1951 were tiny by today’s standards. Most small-market stations were in places that got up early and went to bed early, and were already covered during the morning and afternoon by local radio. Daytime TV didn’t catch on until the network line came to town sometime between about 1952 and 1956, delivering dull but free entertainment. Until then, and even long after then for stations in markets too small to win a network affiliation, many stations signed on each weekday with a women’s talk and kitchen program at 3 (shopping, cooking, fashion, advice), followed by a cheap one-hour show or syndicated film at 4. Afterschool kiddie cartoons came on at 5.

At 5:45, there might have been all of 15 minutes of national and international news on film from a network or independent news agency, generally as mentioned a day or so behind the wired-in network stations of the northeast and Midwest. From 6 pm until signoff, often no later than 9:30 or 10, they ran two rock-bottom priced 30-minute comedies followed by a feature film, ironically made affordable to TV because TV wiped out much of the theatrical market for Grade-Z movies. The small, third-rate studios that filmed westerns and East Side Kids comedies gave up and sold films to the next generation’s mom and pop television stations.

Sooner rather than later, a TV station had to have TV cameras for live broadcasts. That was really expensive, a wrenching jump; until now, a station-in-a-shack has only cost $100,000 in equipment, maybe $10,000 in land acquisition, $10,000 for a prefab building, and some operating expenses. Now, you’d be talking about a minimum additional expense of maybe $300,000 for a set of soundproof TV studios, a control room, three high-quality studio cameras and their associated electronic control racks, lots of big lights and wiring for high current, and air conditioning — lots of it. That’s the kind of big city-style TV studio that local ad salesmen could use to impress clients. Most small markets got there only in stages, though.

Instead of a spanking new building with studios that could impress Milwaukee or Detroit, most small stations took a cheaper route. They bought a mobile broadcast truck for only $100,000, equipped with two TV cameras, a tiny control room, microphones and audio gear, and a low-wattage microwave transmitter on an extendable boom that could “hit” a dish mounted at the transmitter site.

If you lived in Tyler, TX, or Waterville, ME, or Hanford, WA, there was usually only one station in most early small markets, so that station became “the TV” and tried to be seen as your friend. Nothing turned out to be more important than providing live local sports coverage. It sold tens of thousands of TV sets, and bonded particular channels to their viewers, in some cases for a generation or more of loyalty.

High school and college football, baseball, basketball, and wrestling filled up endless hours of time and were (in those days) free programming. Your one expense was juicing up extra lights for night games, and this was often informally arranged with a few phone calls and a friendly drink between the station, the electric company, and the school’s athletic director.

Now you were a highly visible part of the community, and everyone wanted your cameras at their event. That $100,000 remote broadcast truck was not only a cheap way to get live cameras on the air; it was great free advertising for the station anywhere it went, especially anywhere it was set up and used. Being part of a crowd for live coverage of a public event is exciting even today; it’s hard to convey how much of a high technology miracle it was in the Forties and Fifties. All the trucks had a ladder to the roof and a sturdy camera platform; the bold silhouette of the cameraman and a blocky TV camera on a tripod on top of the truck became a Fifties icon of the modern age. Two cameras didn’t get you great coverage, but it was usually adequate and people didn’t have much to compare it to.

There was little or none of today’s air of the adversarial media in those days on local radio and television. Stations strived to be part of the local and regional team, as they perceived it, and boosted local culture and industry. Erie, PA did not run muckraking news reports about the railroads. Beaumont, TX did not go out of its way to attack the energy business.

Where did live local news begin? For a lot of small stations, it started in the garage where the station parked its mobile truck. They took the two cameras out, used the tiny control room in the truck, and its microwave link to the transmitter.

The local weather map was painted on a rear wall, covered by a gray drapery for talk shows, and a painted circus drapery for the kiddie cartoon show. For the nightly fifteen minutes of local news, they dragged a desk in front of the curtain. For women’s programs in the afternoon, they brought out a couch and a coffee table. Many stations squeezed by for years with equipment like this.

Later in the Fifties, with advertising profits soaring, even many frugal small stations finally “went pro” — built the kind of modern, multi-camera studios that bigger stations had. By then they could do it with current operating revenues. But they wisely held onto the image of those trucks, your school’s sympathetic companion for a generation of home games.

What happened to small-market TV? Well, in one sense, nothing, or at least nothing bad; it’s still there all over the country. Other than isolated geographic pockets unreachable by terrestrial TV signals, the US reached television’s level of practical saturation about 60 years ago and never lost it.

But make no mistake about it. The biggest day in your town’s TV history may be the day when its first TV station covered the region; but in all likelihood, the most significant day was the one when the control room pushed a button from AT&T, and live network television appeared instantly. Local TV culture, and yes, there was some, began to fade. The homogenization of national culture, customs, and language would exact a price over the years. Your local, friendly, rural CBS affiliate didn’t just bring you “Gunsmoke” but also Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. NBC wasn’t just the company that broadcast “Victory at Sea” every Sunday afternoon at four; it was the face of live broadcasting from Selma during the civil rights revolution.

But that was all in the future in 1952, when TV finally started reaching coast to coast, and big cities in the South and the Southwest started connecting. In those days it was pretty much an unalloyed blessing for stations lucky enough to be chosen as one of the big three networks’ dance partners. It took longer for the tendrils of AT&T’s coaxial cables to reach smaller markets. Even when they did, carrying the benefits of “Dragnet” and “The Thin Man,” local stations often found that their most loyal fans stuck around for locally originated shows like “Miss Mary’s Schoolbell,” “Cowboy Bob’s Afternoon Round Up,” or the cheap midnight 1930s horror movies on “Chiller Theater.”

This is the first in a threatened series of brief monographs on TV and media history. Yes, @hankrhody does the electrical engineering better, @ejhill does TV history better, and @titustechera does culture’s Big Picture better.

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  1. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    No, I Love Lucy was always made on 35mm film, other than the first pilot episode. If you saw a bad Lucy, it was probably a tired, fourth generation 16mm copy. That’s one thing that helped give reruns a bad name, almost as soon as there were reruns; uneven, cheapo laboratory copying.

    I gotta say, Dnew, you’re really on the case. I passed back though Albuquerque a few more times, going east in 1976, west to move to the west coast in 1977, and on Amtrak a couple of times. 1977’s when I visited the National Museum of Atomic Weapons, at the time located on Kirtland AFB. At the time hardly anyone knew about it or cared. I was fascinated that you could walk right up to (disarmed) bombs and slap ’em affectionately on the nose.

    For 40 years I’ve been “haunted” by the half-joke that if only, if only, we’d had the foresight to sell our car on the spot and bought a quarter of Microsoft while we were in town, we’d now own the universe.

    I spent a lot of time at the Atomic Museum. I went to kindergarten and preschool on base, and lived just outside the Louisiana gate, so we had lots of field trips. I kinda liked the darky, spooky ambiance of the old building better than the new, brightly-lit one.

    I have not, however, been to the classified side, though several friends have, and one found a document written by my dad in there.

    Re: Microsoft:

    • #31
  2. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    If I’m not mistaken the last great consumer of Kinescopes was the United States Navy who used it onboard ships for playing back domestic television programs well into the 1970s. Sony introduced the first video cassettes for broadcast use in 1976 with its 3/4” U-Matic format, although a lower quality industrial version had been around since ‘71. The quality wasn’t as good as 2” but much better than VHS. 

    Now, with geo-synchronized satellites and gyroscoped receivers live television is commonplace. 

    • #32
  3. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    No, I Love Lucy was always made on 35mm film, other than the first pilot episode. If you saw a bad Lucy, it was probably a tired, fourth generation 16mm copy. That’s one thing that helped give reruns a bad name, almost as soon as there were reruns; uneven, cheapo laboratory copying.

    I gotta say, Dnew, you’re really on the case. I passed back though Albuquerque a few more times, going east in 1976, west to move to the west coast in 1977, and on Amtrak a couple of times. 1977’s when I visited the National Museum of Atomic Weapons, at the time located on Kirtland AFB. At the time hardly anyone knew about it or cared. I was fascinated that you could walk right up to (disarmed) bombs and slap ’em affectionately on the nose.

    For 40 years I’ve been “haunted” by the half-joke that if only, if only, we’d had the foresight to sell our car on the spot and bought a quarter of Microsoft while we were in town, we’d now own the universe.

    I spent a lot of time at the Atomic Museum. I went to kindergarten and preschool on base, and lived just outside the Louisiana gate, so we had lots of field trips. I kinda liked the darky, spooky ambiance of the old building better than the new, brightly-lit one.

    I have not, however, been to the classified side, though several friends have, and one found a document written by my dad in there.

    Re: Microsoft:

    Sadly, my sophomore year book picture looks an awful lot like that mugshot. Sans APD placard around my neck. And my hair’s darker.

    • #33
  4. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Very interesting.  On the costs of entering the TV business:

     

    “How little did it take? RCA and its main competitors, General Electric and Du Mont Laboratories, offered a basic package for $100,000 (equivalent to $1.2 million in today’s dollars) for a five-kilowatt transmitter, a minimal control room, and a telecine multiplexer, not much more than a classroom-quality 16mm film projector and a slide projector beaming into a specialized pickup tube.”

    …wouldn’t one have also had to pay for a high-bandwidth connection to a network in order to receive their programming?  Or did the networks pick up these costs?  Or were the early stations non-networked?

    • #34
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Very interesting. On the costs of entering the TV business:

     

    “How little did it take? RCA and its main competitors, General Electric and Du Mont Laboratories, offered a basic package for $100,000 (equivalent to $1.2 million in today’s dollars) for a five-kilowatt transmitter, a minimal control room, and a telecine multiplexer, not much more than a classroom-quality 16mm film projector and a slide projector beaming into a specialized pickup tube.”

    …wouldn’t one have also had to pay for a high-bandwidth connection to a network in order to receive their programming? Or did the networks pick up these costs? Or were the early stations non-networked?

    The early stations were non-networked. Affiliation with a network in those days meant you subscribed to their 16mm print service, which often included kinescopes of last night’s news from New York and Washington. Once AT&T managed to reach your town with the national coaxial cable, you just threw a switch. At that point, the network deal was basically they paid for the wire charges, which were huge–$3,000 to $8,000 a month. They ran national ads, and you had the right to insert your own local ads. Like the same companies did in radio days, they sometimes offered a part deal to stations that were only somewhat desirable: you pay the cable charges, the ad deal is the same. As @ejhill pointed out, in many cases the stations and the networks had a weak “marriage” with built-in conflicts. Both parties to the agreement had roving eyes and were inclined to stray. 

    • #35
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The network wire coming to town wasn’t the end of trouble. Until videotape got going, late in 1956 and through the end of the Fifties, one of TV’s thorniest problems was time zones. The three hour difference to the West Coast was “solved” with kinescopes delaying the broadcast, but that only worked for black and white; color film stubbornly took too long to process in time. By the time Eastman Kodak got close to a solution, VTRs solved it for good. 

     

    • #36
  7. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    By the way, did that commercially fateful 1948-1952 FCC license freeze make technical sense in retrospect? It did establish important standards on avoiding cross-country co-channel interference.

    This was a particularly sensitive issue for NBC, whose laboratories and manufacturing plants were roughly halfway between two of their own channel 4 stations, which interfered with each other’s signals. 

    Basically, they learned to shift competing cities’ stations very very slightly up or down to offset the problem. The bandwidth for Channel 4 starts at 67,500,000 Hz, so WNBC 4 New York is offset to 67,475,000 and NBC’s WRC 4 Washington broadcasts its own “flavor” of channel 4 on 67,525,000.

    Problem solved. 

    • #37
  8. Jon1979 Inactive
    Jon1979
    @Jon1979

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: General Sarnoff was not too thrilled…

    The General was a nasty, ruthless man. However, his bullying did spare us all from having TVs with spinning disks inside of them, so there’s that.

    CBS, miffed at losing the battle over color TV standards in the early 1950s, would hold out against doing virtually any of their prime-time programming in color until the 1965-66 season. But they did experiment with color broadcasts a couple of years after the FCC ruling, doing one episode of many of their big prime-time filmed shows in color (since it didn’t require them to buy any of RCA’s color cameras to have film shot in color). Those episodes usually ended up in syndication in black & white prints, but the color copy of The Burns & Allen Show that started off the 1954-55 season is posted on YouTube:

    • #38
  9. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    By the way, did that commercially fateful 1948-1952 FCC license freeze make technical sense in retrospect? It did establish important standards on avoiding cross-country co-channel interference.

    This was a particularly sensitive issue for NBC, whose laboratories and manufacturing plants were roughly halfway between two of their own channel 4 stations, which interfered with each other’s signals.

    Basically, they learned to shift competing cities’ stations very very slightly up or down to offset the problem. The bandwidth for Channel 4 starts at 67,500,000 Hz, so WNBC 4 New York is offset to 67,475,000 and NBC’s WRC 4 Washington broadcasts its own “flavor” of channel 4 on 67,525,000.

    Problem solved.

    Why they needed fine tuning knobs on TVs, no doubt.

    • #39
  10. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: General Sarnoff was not too thrilled…

    The General was a nasty, ruthless man. However, his bullying did spare us all from having TVs with spinning disks inside of them, so there’s that.

    Well, until DLP came out. Boy, is that a purchase I regret. Those stupid disks are expensive, and break if you breathe in the same room as them.

    • #40
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    By the way, did that commercially fateful 1948-1952 FCC license freeze make technical sense in retrospect? It did establish important standards on avoiding cross-country co-channel interference.

    This was a particularly sensitive issue for NBC, whose laboratories and manufacturing plants were roughly halfway between two of their own channel 4 stations, which interfered with each other’s signals.

    Basically, they learned to shift competing cities’ stations very very slightly up or down to offset the problem. The bandwidth for Channel 4 starts at 67,500,000 Hz, so WNBC 4 New York is offset to 67,475,000 and NBC’s WRC 4 Washington broadcasts its own “flavor” of channel 4 on 67,525,000.

    Problem solved.

    Why they needed fine tuning knobs on TVs, no doubt.

    PAL, the dominant color TV standard in Europe, doesn’t have an adjustment for hue. (The Germans tend to be strict, humorless and exact about these things.) Europeans on their first American visits were often surprised or amused at our ability to turn faces green or purple. 

     

    • #41
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    dnewlander (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: General Sarnoff was not too thrilled…

    The General was a nasty, ruthless man. However, his bullying did spare us all from having TVs with spinning disks inside of them, so there’s that.

    Well, until DLP came out. Boy, is that a purchase I regret. Those stupid disks are expensive, and break if you breathe in the same room as them.

    It’s true that spinning disks couldn’t have lasted forever. (By the way, what’s that humming noise inside your computer? A hard drive, you say, here in the 21st century world of 2018?) But field sequential color TV, the generic name for the CBS system, would have worked with a picture tube, just as dot sequential (the RCA system) did. The CBS advantage was you didn’t have to have an expensive color picture tube; you could get by with a cheap black and white one and a spinning disk. Sure, it was only practical for picture sizes up to about 10 inches, but for a color TV that cost $275 instead of $1000, it wasn’t a crazy idea, especially when B&W TVs still had small pictures too. 

    At the station level, the savings were even greater, and the spinning disk in a handful of cameras was a simple engineering issue. 

    • #42
  13. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gary McVey: Basically, they learned to shift competing cities’ stations very very slightly up or down to offset the problem.

    This is something that only us old farts remember: There was a fine-tuning knob inside the channel selector knobs. Now channels are “scanned” into memory and the compensations made.

    Nothing was cooler for a kid back in the day than atmospheric “skip.” Television signals, as a rule, travel in straight lines and dissipate with the curvature of the earth. But certain layers of cloud cover and temperature inversions can cause analog signals to “bounce” and travel unusual distances. Growing up in NE Ohio it was fascinating to pull in signals from stations in Detroit, courtesy of the weather over Lake Erie. 

    The most famous TV skip came in November of 1938. Engineers at RCA had purchased some British television equipment and were testing it against their own efforts. To their surprise they picked up signals from the BBC’s Alexandra Palace studios in London. A quick thinking engineer turned a movie camera onto the flickering images and captured about four minutes of the signal sans sound. 

    At that time the BBC had pretty much decided to use the Marconi-EMI system that produced 405 lines of resolution. This was considered high definition since the earliest successes consisted of only 30 lines. Marconi-EMI’s competition at the time, John Logie Baird had a system that topped out at 240 lines.

    Ironically, it is the only surviving footage of pre-war television from Britain in existence. They never bothered trying to document their own successes. The BBC continued broadcasting in 405 until 1964 when BBC2 when on the air with the superior 625 line PAL system. Finally, with the introduction of color in 1969 saw both the BBC and ITV to go 625 exclusively. The last 405 station in the UK didn’t sign off until 1985.

    Two additional points:

    1. Since it was already briefly mentioned in this thread CBS mechanical color was only 405 lines. Resolution-wise it was clearly a step backwards.

    2. Next time a liberal friend waxes poetically about public broadcasting you might want to remind them of the glories of the private system in the US. Color television was a reality by 1953. And while the market took time to support it the 1965-66 season saw a full color schedule on NBC. (ABC and CBS followed suit the following year.) By contrast, the BBC didn’t get color at all until 1967 and a full schedule wasn’t offered until 1976. Canada got full color from the CBC in 1974.

    • #43
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: General Sarnoff was not too thrilled…

    The General was a nasty, ruthless man. However, his bullying did spare us all from having TVs with spinning disks inside of them, so there’s that.

    CBS, miffed at losing the battle over color TV standards in the early 1950s, would hold out against doing virtually any of their prime-time programming in color until the 1965-66 season. But they did experiment with color broadcasts a couple of years after the FCC ruling, doing one episode of many of their big prime-time filmed shows in color (since it didn’t require them to buy any of RCA’s color cameras to have film shot in color). Those episodes usually ended up in syndication in black & white prints, but the color copy of The Burns & Allen Show that started off the 1954-55 season is posted on YouTube:

    CBS had been pushing color TV harder than anyone from 1940 on, because it would have slowed the start and the growth of TV at a time when the radio networks were still raking in fat profits. They bought full page ads in Life and other national magazines to illustrate how much better TV could look: “Color Television is Television Worth Waiting For!” You’re right, Jon; once they lost the Color Wars, the networks switched sides. CBS all but disdained color; NBC became The Peacock Network. 

    By 1965, color TV sales finally reached the tipping point predicted for 1955, and all of the networks, even ABC went to full color. But CBS had a worthy bit of final revenge. They imported Dutch cameras, Philips Plumbicons, and got rave reviews from prestigious TV critics about their superb picture quality. Those cameras savaged RCA’s dominant position in TV camera sales for years to come. 

    • #44
  15. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gary McVey: …even ABC went to full color.

    When talking about the Brits slow adoption to color, the program purchases ABC had with ITV actually prompted them to begin shooting shows in color (or should I say “colour?”) when none of their domestic audiences could enjoy it. Although ABC was squeamish with some of the sexual storylines of The Avengers and they refused to air them. Who wouldn’t want to see Diana Rigg in corset, stiletto boots and a spiked collar? (Ep: A Touch of Brimstone)

    NBC’s summer pickup of The Saint also prompted color production of that series.

    • #45
  16. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: Basically, they learned to shift competing cities’ stations very very slightly up or down to offset the problem.

    This is something that only us old farts remember: There was a fine-tuning knob inside the channel selector knobs. Now channels are “scanned” into memory and the compensations made.

    Nothing was cooler for a kid back in the day than atmospheric “skip.” Television signals, as a rule, travel in straight lines and dissipate with the curvature of the earth. But certain layers of cloud cover and temperature inversions can cause analog signals to “bounce” and travel unusual distances. Growing up in NE Ohio it was fascinating to pull in signals from stations in Detroit, courtesy of the weather over Lake Erie.

    The most famous TV skip came in November of 1938. Engineers at RCA had purchased some British television equipment and were testing it against their own efforts. To their surprise they picked up signals from the BBC’s Alexandra Palace studios in London. A quick thinking engineer turned a movie camera onto the flickering images and captured about four minutes of the signal sans sound.

    At that time the BBC had pretty much decided to use the Marconi-EMI system that produced 405 lines of resolution. This was considered high definition since the earliest successes consisted of only 30 lines. Marconi-EMI’s competition at the time, John Logie Baird had a system that topped out at 240 lines.

    Ironically, it is the only surviving footage of pre-war television from Britain in existence. They never bothered trying to document their own successes. The BBC continued broadcasting in 405 until 1964 when BBC2 when on the air with the superior 625 line PAL system. Finally, with the introduction of color in 1969 saw both the BBC and ITV to go 625 exclusively. The last 405 station in the UK didn’t sign off until 1985.

    Two additional points:

    1. Since it was already briefly mentioned in this thread CBS mechanical color was only 405 lines. Resolution-wise it was clearly a step backwards.

    2. Next time a liberal friend waxes poetically about public broadcasting you might want to remind them of the glories of the private system in the US. Color television was a reality by 1953. And while the market took time to support it the 1965-66 season saw a full color schedule on NBC. (ABC and CBS followed suit the following year.) By contrast, the BBC didn’t get color at all until 1967 and a full schedule wasn’t offered until 1976. Canada got full color from the CBC in 1974.

    Australia in 1975. It’s so bizarre watching highlights from the VFL Premiership Grand Finals from the early 70s, and they’re in black and white.

    • #46
  17. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    EJHill (View Comment):

    The first practical video tape machine was the Ampex VR-1000. The thing was huuuuge. And it sold for a modest $45,000. (A cool $423,800 in today’s dollars.) Ampex solved the bandwidth problem with a rotating read/record head that actually had 4 separate heads built into it. They called it quadruplex recording but soon everyone in the industry just called it a Quad. The heavy 2” reels of videotape required an air compressor to create a vacuum to keep the tape in contact with the heads.

    Editing was still done physically with a razor blade and tape. After you stopped the machine at your edit points you marked the approximate area of the cuts with a grease pencil, flipped the tape over and applied a “developer,” which was nothing more than a fine iron powder suspended in a liquid. You then used a microscope to find the vertical interval between frames. Ampex introduced electronic tape-to-tape editing in 1963.

    In 1963, CBS hauled one of their quads out of their NY studios and took it to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy game and introduced the concept of instant replay for sports. Since it was all in regular motion announcer Lindsey Nelson had to assure viewers that Army hadn’t scored again and so quickly. It was such a hit and miss proposition though that director Tony Verna got in exactly one replay the entire game. At that moment, television transformed sports watched at home to something more engaging than what you got if you were actually at the event.

    In 1974 my university acquired a Sony portable camera and a 3/4 inch recorder system mounted on a back pack. Heavy and pricey, I think it cost us about $60,000. The following year we bought an electronic editing setup (probably Ampex), two 1” VTRs slaved to some kind of electronic controller. I don’t remember the technical pieces. I do however remember how finicky chroma key in blue was. 

    • #47
  18. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Nobody ever answered about when satellite started. 

    I’m not sure exactly what year we got a color TV, but I can remember seeing the peacock in black and white.  I think we had color within a year or two after NBC going color, so ’66 or ’67.  I mention this because I can also remember seeing ‘Live Via Satellite’ in black and white.

    So it had to be no later than the mid-sixties that it came online.

    • #48
  19. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Judge Mental: Nobody ever answered about when satellite started. 

    Telstar launched in 1962. The first geosynchronous bird launched in 1963.

    • #49
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Domestic satellite took a little longer, because by then AT&T was cost-cutting terrestrial signal transport. About the mid-Seventies. Ironically, after that fiber optics would bring a lot of the video traffic back to earth again. 

    NBC was owned by a major electronics manufacturer, RCA, so they had multiple reasons to push color in the lean decade before it really caught on. They ran hours of color each week. Below is a very accurate Mad Magazine parody of RCA’s incessant ads for color in the Fifties:

    • #50
  21. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    So–no real difference…

    • #51
  22. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Domestic satellite took a little longer, because by then AT&T was cost-cutting terrestrial signal transport. About the mid-Seventies. Ironically, after that fiber optics would bring a lot of the video traffic back to earth again.

    NBC was owned by a major electronics manufacturer, RCA, so they had multiple reasons to push color in the lean decade before it really caught on. They ran hours of color each week. Below is a very accurate Mad Magazine parody of RCA’s incessant ads for color in the Fifties:

    Of course the colorization vs gray scale rendering is obviously flawed.  I can’t be the only one seeing it.

    • #52
  23. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    That’s called decency, Judge. When you grow up, you’ll learn about it!

    • #53
  24. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    That’s called decency, Judge. When you grow up, you’ll learn about it!

    Actually indecency.  Look at the shoes.  They are rendered as black.  Then match the color of the shoes to the one piece and the headdress.  The shoes are somewhere between those two.  So either it should all render black, or the shoes should also be flesh-tone gray.  Clearly, they manipulated it to make them look more naked.  Because of course they did; it’s Mad Magazine.

    • #54
  25. Jon1979 Inactive
    Jon1979
    @Jon1979

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    CBS had been pushing color TV harder than anyone from 1940 on, because it would have slowed the start and the growth of TV at a time when the radio networks were still raking in fat profits. They bought full page ads in Life and other national magazines to illustrate how much better TV could look: “Color Television is Television Worth Waiting For!” You’re right, Jon; once they lost the Color Wars, the networks switched sides. CBS all but disdained color; NBC became The Peacock Network.

    By 1965, color TV sales finally reached the tipping point predicted for 1955, and all of the networks, even ABC went to full color. But CBS had a worthy bit of final revenge. They imported Dutch cameras, Philips Plumbicons, and got rave reviews from prestigious TV critics about their superb picture quality. Those cameras savaged RCA’s dominant position in TV camera sales for years to come.

    NBC’s first half-hour show in color was the Christmas, 1953 episode of “Dragnet”  — the show’s in the public domain and on YouTube, but only in the B&W syndication print (but with the Pathecolor notice in the end credits). Like CBS, they’d dabble in color here and there in that period, but really didn’t start pushing any regular series in full color until the 1957-58 season, with “Your Hit Parade” and “The Steve Allen Show”.

    IIRC, “Bonanza” in 1959 was the first filmed show to debut in full color, and by the time CBS finally threw in the towel and started doing about half their shows in color in the fall of ’65, NBC only had two shows that remained in B&W (one of which was “I Dream of Jeannie”, which neither the network nor Screen Gems wanted to pay the extra cost to film in color, because neither thought the show would last beyond one season).

    • #55
  26. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    CBS had been pushing color TV harder than anyone from 1940 on, because it would have slowed the start and the growth of TV at a time when the radio networks were still raking in fat profits. They bought full page ads in Life and other national magazines to illustrate how much better TV could look: “Color Television is Television Worth Waiting For!” You’re right, Jon; once they lost the Color Wars, the networks switched sides. CBS all but disdained color; NBC became The Peacock Network.

    By 1965, color TV sales finally reached the tipping point predicted for 1955, and all of the networks, even ABC went to full color. But CBS had a worthy bit of final revenge. They imported Dutch cameras, Philips Plumbicons, and got rave reviews from prestigious TV critics about their superb picture quality. Those cameras savaged RCA’s dominant position in TV camera sales for years to come.

    NBC’s first half-hour show in color was the Christmas, 1953 episode of “Dragnet” — the show’s in the public domain and on YouTube, but only in the B&W syndication print (but with the color notice in the end credits). Like CBS, they’d dabble in color here and there in that period, but really didn’t start pushing any regular series in full color until the 1957-58 season, with “Your Hit Parade” and “The Steve Allen Show”.

    IIRC, “Bonanza” in 1959 was the first filmed show to debut in full color, and by the time CBS finally threw in the towel and started doing about half their shows in color in the fall of ’65, NBC only had two shows that remained in B&W (one of which was “I Dream of Jeannie”, which neither the network nor Screen Gems wanted to pay the extra cost to film in color, because neither thought the show would last beyond one season).

    That’s pretty amazing. NBC was broadcasting in color over two decades before the BBC. And that’s without the Television Tax.

    • #56
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    To be fair to Auntie Beeb, NBC wasn’t permitted to go on the air with color until late 1953. The BBC almost immediately experimented with their 405 line version of NTSC (American system) color, and the engineers liked it, but the country’s tough postwar economy put a low priority on luxuries like TVs that cost three times what black and white ones did. By the time things were finally booming, there were political reasons to try to harmonize with continental Europe, which was converging on 625 lines. Most of the major countries, including the UK, made the jump to add color channels in 1967. 

    An additional 14 years of tech development, plus broader bandwidth, gave overseas color TV a gorgeous picture that in its day never failed to impress Americans. It wasn’t high def, but if all you’d ever seen was TV in North America or Japan, it was close. 

    • #57
  28. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    To be fair to Auntie Beeb, NBC wasn’t permitted to go on the air with color until late 1953. The BBC almost immediately experimented with their 405 line version of NTSC (American system) color, and the engineers liked it, but the country’s tough postwar economy put a low priority on luxuries like TVs that cost three times what black and white ones did. By the time things were finally booming, there were political reasons to try to harmonize with continental Europe, which was converging on 625 lines. Most of the major countries, including the UK, made the jump to add color channels in 1967.

    An additional 14 years of tech development, plus broader bandwidth, gave overseas color TV a gorgeous picture that in its day never failed to impress Americans. It wasn’t high def, but if all you’d ever seen was TV in North America or Japan, it was close.

    That last line is certainly true. TV in Australia in 1999 was a lot clearer than what I was used to. Of course, the fact that there were only eight channels, when I’d been used to cable TV for two decades put a bit of a damper in that feeling. Until I discovered the movies shown on the SBS. Once I finally moved into a house where I could get cable, I pretty much stuck to American TV, because Aussie TV of the time was pretty terrible.

    But it was definitely a political thing, nipping color TV in the bud for two decades. The idea of government owning the industry and limiting technical development is pretty awful.

    • #58
  29. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    In most European countries, the Post Office was traditionally in charge of radio and television transmitters and other national distribution equipment. A private company could, in most of Europe, produce shows or even whole segments of the broadcasting day, but they couldn’t own the antennas. It’s a strange concept to Americans. At one time, if you were unopposed for a license, a radio station could be built by anybody–a department store; the owner of a chain of gas stations; an ambitious preacher; a patent medicine salesman. Just wire the money to Western Electric or RCA and they’d send you a transmitter via Railway Express.  

    TV was a little more stringent, but not much. To get a license, you had to present a realistic business plan (to a government agency, which seems weird now), because too many fly-by-night operators grabbed up early licenses that they had no intention of using themselves. Ticket scalpers, in effect. The FCC was not unreasonable in denying licenses to Ponzi schemes of the airwaves. 

    • #59
  30. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    In most European countries, the Post Office was traditionally in charge of radio and television transmitters and other national distribution equipment. A private company could, in most of Europe, produce shows or even whole segments of the broadcasting day, but they couldn’t own the antennas. It’s a strange concept to Americans. At one time, if you were unopposed for a license, a radio station could be built by anybody–a department store; the owner of a chain of gas stations; an ambitious preacher; a patent medicine salesman. Just wire the money to Western Electric or RCA and they’d send you a transmitter via Railway Express.

    TV was a little more stringent, but not much. To get a license, you had to present a realistic business plan (to a government agency, which seems weird now), because too many fly-by-night operators grabbed up early licenses that they had no intention of using themselves. Ticket scalpers, in effect. The FCC was not unreasonable in denying licenses to Ponzi schemes of the airwaves.

    Including the Internet. The fact that it wasn’t here (though primarily financed by DARPA, I’ll grant; but DARPA never wanted to own it, just ensure it existed) is the only reason it has blossomed.

    For evidence, I present Minitel.

    • #60
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