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. The 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 the 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. The 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, the 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 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 led by Dr. George Brown 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.

And 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.

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There are 36 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  1. Vectorman Thatcher

    One other issue somewhat in favor of the RCA compatible approach was the frequency bands chosen for the original Black and White set. Channels 7 -13 (174 – 216 MHz) are approximately 3 times that of Channels 2 through 6 (54 -88 MHz). A simple frequency tripler circuit can generate some of the needed frequencies within the set.

     Channels 2 – 6 also used the same frequencies as VHF military radios (30 – 88 MHz) which were well developed in World War II. Lower frequencies were also easier to amplify using the standard glass tubes of the era. And lower frequencies travel farther, increasing the coverage from the broadcast transmitter.

    • #1
    • September 3, 2019, at 4:24 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  2. Jon1979 Lincoln

    CBS lost the battle, but they can still claim forever that their color wheel TV transmission system was the first to make it to the moon, since that’s what the Apollo missions used to send color TV signals back to Earth.

    • #2
    • September 3, 2019, at 6:04 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    Gary McVey:

    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 CBS.

    Shouldn’t that be “parent company of NBC”?

    Great article. I knew that there were competing color formats, and that compatibility with black-and-white eventually won the day, but I didn’t realize that we very nearly went down a different path.

    Of course, we faced a similar transition a couple of decades ago, when digital TV (and HDTV) came along. And this time, backward compatibility was not an option…

    • #3
    • September 3, 2019, at 7:23 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. The Reticulator Member

    Until your articles came along, I hadn’t known there was that much color television, that early. 

    • #4
    • September 3, 2019, at 10:29 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    Gary McVey:

    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 CBS.

    Shouldn’t that be “parent company of NBC”?

    Great article. I knew that there were competing color formats, and that compatibility with black-and-white eventually won the day, but I didn’t realize that we very nearly went down a different path.

    Of course, we faced a similar transition a couple of decades ago, when digital TV (and HDTV) came along. And this time, backward compatibility was not an option…

    Fixed, and thanks! Though there’s another quirk of history that didn’t happen; before we settled on a digital HDTV standard, there was an analog proposal to meld two 525 line standard signals into one 1050 line one. Each existing station that made the jump would have to pair with a new one in UHF. It was too much to juggle. 

    • #5
    • September 3, 2019, at 11:32 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Until your articles came along, I hadn’t known there was that much color television, that early.

    The Cisco Kid, a syndicated series, filmed in color from 1949 on, convinced that color TV was around the corner. It’s strange to see one now, because although it’s in color it looks older than most black and white shows. 

    • #6
    • September 3, 2019, at 11:34 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  7. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    CBS lost the battle, but they can still claim forever that their color wheel TV transmission system was the first to make it to the moon, since that’s what the Apollo missions used to send color TV signals back to Earth.

    It allowed a much smaller, lighter camera, no bigger than black and white cameras of the time. By contrast, RCA’s TK-40 and TK-41 were nicknamed “the coffin” and took several men to lift onto its dolly/pedestal. 

    Even after the FCC settled on RCA’s system, Peter Goldmark stubbornly re-developed the lightweight, relatively inexpensive spinning wheel camera to produce an NTSC-format signal. He called it a Chromacoder and it could have saved stations a lot of money. But by then, Bill Paley had enough. “Gentlemen, the RCA camera has us beat. It has the better quality”. And that was that. 

    • #7
    • September 3, 2019, at 11:41 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    One other issue somewhat in favor of the RCA compatible approach was the frequency bands chosen for the original Black and White set. Channels 7 -13 (174 – 216 MHz) are approximately 3 times that of Channels 2 through 6 (54 -88 MHz). A simple frequency tripler circuit can generate some of the needed frequencies within the set.

    Channels 2 – 6 also used the same frequencies as VHF military radios (30 – 88 MHz) which were well developed in World War II. Lower frequencies were also easier to amplify using the standard glass tubes of the era. And lower frequencies travel farther, increasing the coverage from the broadcast transmitter.

    ABC didn’t open TV stations until 1948, years after NBC, CBS, and DuMont. They thought it would be great if they could be consistent, so they asked for and got the lowest channel that was still open in all five cities, channel 7. They figured it would be easy to remember “ABC-7”. But as Vectorman points out, “lucky” 7 was located way up there, about twice the frequency of “neighboring” channel 6. Higher frequency, as he says, meant less coverage. 

    • #8
    • September 3, 2019, at 11:45 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Douglas Pratt Member

    Thank you for a fascinating article. I was born in 1952 but I remember some of the excitement of visiting friends who had a (gasp) color TV.

    It also reminded me of the classic Stan Freberg ad for Pittsburgh Paints, “Painting on the Radio.” I can’t find a link to it; it’s on the “Tip of the Freberg” collection. June Foray provides the cynical second voice, and the sound effects are of dripping and slapping wet paintbrushes. The schtick is that the paint company has given up on TV reproducing their colors properly, so they’re trying it on radio. “While TV might be all right for a fuchsia Johnny Carson…” “On my set he’s more of a salmon. Ed McMahon is fuchsia.”

     

    • #9
    • September 3, 2019, at 11:56 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Thank you for a fascinating article. I was born in 1952 but I remember some of the excitement of visiting friends who had a (gasp) color TV.

    It also reminded me of the classic Stan Freberg ad for Pittsburgh Paints, “Painting on the Radio.” I can’t find a link to it; it’s on the “Tip of the Freberg” collection. June Foray provides the cynical second voice, and the sound effects are of dripping and slapping wet paintbrushes. The schtick is that the paint company has given up on TV reproducing their colors properly, so they’re trying it on radio. “While TV might be all right for a fuchsia Johnny Carson…” “On my set he’s more of a salmon. Ed McMahon is fuchsia.”

     

    A fine compliment indeed, from one of Ricochet’s golden voices! Thank you, Douglas. Two years ago, the color wars of the early Fifties was the (heavily fictionalized) background for a Ricochet Silent Radio five-parter, Everything’s Better in Color

    • #10
    • September 3, 2019, at 12:04 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  11. Aaron Miller Member

    I upgraded to a cheap 4K TV a year or two ago. Seemingly unlike most people, I was less interested in the 4K resolution than with the associated High Dynamic Range (HDR) colors extension. Everyone appreciates improvements in clarity. But in the most striking examples HDR makes traditional color TV pictures look like scenes viewed through a dirty window. 

    Unfortunately, the knowledge and techniques of content creators are still catching up to the technology’s potentials. Most seem less interested in HDR’s extended color palette than in making scenes darker or brighter than was previously possible.

    In theory, this means film makers can present darker scenes in which essential elements remain visible. In practice, as demonstrated by Amazon’s shows Carnival Row and The Man in the High Castle, it means scenes are made so dark that one struggles to see even when viewing in a lightless room. Worse, some shows and films are simply not enjoyable in well lit viewing environments. The storytellers demand a theater environment (windows covered). Then they blast you with blinding strobe effects.

    Perhaps creator awareness will improve in the wake of more consistent techmology. One 4K TV’s resolution is basically like another, though some retain more clarity from angled viewing. On HDR, however, 4K TVs vary widely both in range of color spectrum and orientation of that spectrum (favoring the red or blue end, for example). And there remain different HDR standards

    • #11
    • September 3, 2019, at 1:12 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Some directors mistake literal or metaphorical darkness for profundity. 

    • #12
    • September 3, 2019, at 1:23 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  13. tigerlily Member

    I got to wondering about Miss CBS Color Patty Painter. Was she a babe? What kind of career did she have?, and so forth. According to IMDb she only has two credits, both for television. However, I suspect that’s wrong – I think she probably had many more TV appearances than two. She was well enough known that The New Yorker magazine ran an interview of her in their August 11, 1951 issue. I also came across a few photos of her.

     

    Miss CBS Color Patty Painter
    • #13
    • September 3, 2019, at 2:32 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  14. Randy Webster Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    The Cisco Kid,

    Was he a friend of yours?

    • #14
    • September 3, 2019, at 3:18 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  15. Percival Thatcher

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Until your articles came along, I hadn’t known there was that much color television, that early.

    The Cisco Kid, a syndicated series, filmed in color from 1949 on, convinced that color TV was around the corner. It’s strange to see one now, because although it’s in color it looks older than most black and white shows.

    Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo ride again!

    • #15
    • September 3, 2019, at 3:33 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. Locke On Member

    They made a peace and called it Never Twice Same Color. Lord, we had ‘fun’ trying to deal with transition and gamut issues back in the days of Apple IIs, C64’s and modulating video from cramped graphics memories onto people’s existing TVs. Made you want to reach through the screen back in time, grab the throats of the old timers and throttle ’em! What a relief when RGB monitors took over the market.

    Years later I sat down the hall from and shared a coffee pot with the fellow who was holding up Apple’s share of the HDTV war, so I got to hear bits of that struggle as well. 

    • #16
    • September 3, 2019, at 4:07 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  17. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Tune in to Ricochet every day for more colorful content, from poetry to pop culture to fascinating peeks behind the curtain of history!

    Immediate openings for your own creations!

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the September 2019 Group Writing Theme: “Autumn Colors.” There are plenty of dates available. Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #17
    • September 3, 2019, at 4:09 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Locke On (View Comment):

    They made a peace and called it Never Twice Same Color. Lord, we had ‘fun’ trying to deal with transition and gamut issues back in the days of Apple IIs, C64’s and modulating video from cramped graphics memories onto people’s existing TVs. Made you want to reach through the screen back in time, grab the throats of the old timers and throttle ’em! What a relief when RGB monitors took over the market.

    Years later I sat down the hall from and shared a coffee pot with the fellow who was holding up Apple’s share of the HDTV war, so I got to hear bits of that struggle as well.

    NTSC was an amazing compromise that essentially worked on the principle that a detailed black and white picture could be overlaid with lower definition color, and the eye isn’t equally sensitive to detail in all colors. Green is the most detailed, probably because of millions of years of evolution searching for food and avoiding predators in grassland and forest. Red stands out, in nature as well as in photography, so it didn’t require as much detail. As Locke On says, the compromises began to show as the equipment got better over decades. But in the mid to late Eighties there was a period of “Super NTSC” that squeezed the best out of a 480 line picture by separating the luma and chroma signals (S-Video) and recording them more distinctly from each other (S-VHS; Hi-8). RGB monitors were one of the final steps, long used in the studio, only brought to the home in the computer era. 

    • #18
    • September 3, 2019, at 5:49 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    There’s an interesting story to be told five to ten years later in the timeline, as America competed with France to establish the world color TV standard. It got ugly. Maybe I’ll write it up as “TV’s Color Wars: Far From Home”. 

    • #19
    • September 3, 2019, at 5:52 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  20. Vectorman Thatcher

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    There’s an interesting story to be told five to ten years later in the timeline, as America competed with France to establish the world color TV standard. It got ugly. Maybe I’ll write it up as “TV’s Color Wars: Far From Home”.

    Maybe someone will take the High Definition Analog standard from Japan?

    • #20
    • September 3, 2019, at 6:06 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. PHCheese Member

    My father died in 1974 never owing a color TV. He kept having his B&W DuMont repaired. I think he bought that around 1949 for what he considered a kings ransom. I bought a Sears color set in 1970 upon my discharge from the Army. I wanted it to watch the Super Bowl. It was a piece of junk. The tuner went the day before the big game. I rushed to Sears for a loaner and they only had a B&W. It took them a month to fix the tuner. Funny thing is it only received about 5 channels. I think the dial went from 1 through 13. Of course it was a vast waste land and is still a vast waste land with hundreds of channels.

    • #21
    • September 3, 2019, at 6:24 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    There’s an interesting story to be told five to ten years later in the timeline, as America competed with France to establish the world color TV standard. It got ugly. Maybe I’ll write it up as “TV’s Color Wars: Far From Home”.

    Maybe someone will take the High Definition Analog standard from Japan?

    Hi-Vision was a little like Betamax–Sony pioneers a consumer technology, but eventually loses out to a later rival and the company is stuck because it doesn’t want to lose face. But there are some differences; Sony and NHK had a reasonable hope that the US and Europe would just roll over an accept their victory. And once it was plain that the US was going with a home-grown digital system, the Japanese didn’t fight it. The advantages of digital were clear by then. 

    • #22
    • September 3, 2019, at 6:37 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    My father died in 1974 never owing a color TV. He kept having his B&W DuMont repaired. I think he bought that around 1949 for what he considered a kings ransom. I bought a Sears color set in 1970 upon my discharge from the Army. I wanted it to watch the Super Bowl. It was a piece of junk. The tuner went the day before the big game. I rushed to Sears for a loaner and they only had a B&W. It took them a month to fix the tuner. Funny thing is it only received about 5 channels. I think the dial went from 1 through 13. Of course it was a vast waste land and is still a vast waste land with hundreds of channels.

    My father-in-law wouldn’t buy a color set. I finally bought one for him in 1982 but he rarely used it. He was 65 by then and never much of a TV watcher. 

    • #23
    • September 3, 2019, at 6:40 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. The Reticulator Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    My father-in-law wouldn’t buy a color set. I finally bought one for him in 1982 but he rarely used it. He was 65 by then and never much of a TV watcher.

    In 1980 we had gone without a television for a couple of years. My father-in-law flew out to visit and brought a portable b&w television with him so he could watch his programs, and then left it with us when he returned home. We had a couple of periods when we went without a TV for a year or longer, but I don’t remember if that was the first or the second. Strange how I forget these details. 

    I think the first color TV we owned was the console set we inherited from my father-in-law when he died in 1985. We took it home and used it for a few years, but it was already somewhat of a clunker by then. 

    • #24
    • September 3, 2019, at 8:04 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  25. Locke On Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    But in the mid to late Eighties there was a period of “Super NTSC” that squeezed the best out of a 480 line picture by separating the luma and chroma signals (S-Video) and recording them more distinctly from each other (S-VHS; Hi-8). RGB monitors were one of the final steps

    I shot (well, paid to have shot) S-Video for some industrial work in the late 80s, and owned a Hi-8 camcorder that was near broadcast quality; a couple clips that I shot on it were edited into Apple marketing propaganda with no one the wiser. At some point Apple hijacked the S-Video connector definition for one of their proprietary networking standards, so our video cables sometimes wandered off due to ‘midnight engineering’ – they apparently worked just fine…

    • #25
    • September 3, 2019, at 8:11 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  26. Locke On Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    There’s an interesting story to be told five to ten years later in the timeline, as America competed with France to establish the world color TV standard. It got ugly. Maybe I’ll write it up as “TV’s Color Wars: Far From Home”.

    Maybe someone will take the High Definition Analog standard from Japan?

    Hi-Vision was a little like Betamax–Sony pioneers a consumer technology, but eventually loses out to a later rival and the company is stuck because it doesn’t want to lose face. But there are some differences; Sony and NHK had a reasonable hope that the US and Europe would just roll over an accept their victory. And once it was plain that the US was going with a home-grown digital system, the Japanese didn’t fight it. The advantages of digital were clear by then.

    I was involved with early QuickTime studies at Apple when the digital video thing started. At the time, it would eat up most of a high-end microprocessor to do full digital video on a standard RGB monitor, and people though the initial digital HDTV proposals were a bit over the top. By the time the standard was more or less settled, doing 1080p with embedded silicon or part of a reasonable MPU was pretty straightforward, and the carping had already started about ‘why such low resolution’. One case where the computer people had a clearer vision of the pace of innovation than the incumbent video industry.

    • #26
    • September 3, 2019, at 8:22 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  27. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Jon1979 (View Comment):

    CBS lost the battle, but they can still claim forever that their color wheel TV transmission system was the first to make it to the moon, since that’s what the Apollo missions used to send color TV signals back to Earth.

    It allowed a much smaller, lighter camera, no bigger than black and white cameras of the time. By contrast, RCA’s TK-40 and TK-41 were nicknamed “the coffin” and took several men to lift onto its dolly/pedestal.

    Even after the FCC settled on RCA’s system, Peter Goldmark stubbornly re-developed the lightweight, relatively inexpensive spinning wheel camera to produce an NTSC-format signal. He called it a Chromacoder and it could have saved stations a lot of money. But by then, Bill Paley had enough. “Gentlemen, the RCA camera has us beat. It has the better quality”. And that was that.

    I think I posted this before, but it was interesting that CBS in the year after they lost the color TV battle to NBC/RCA, did do a series of one-shot color broadcasts with some of their biggest shows, and produced several mid-50s episodes of “The Red Skelton Show” in color, but then virtually shut down all color broadcast for the first half of the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1965 that the network’s biggest shows were allowed to tape or film in color, and ’66 when all shows went color, as the penetration of color sets in U.S. households apparently had finally hit the level were Bill Paley gave in.

    (Here’s the color episode of Burns & Allen that aired on CBS in September of 1954 and has been on the interwebs for a while. NBC’s first color broadcast had been nine months earlier, with the Christmas 1953 episode of “Dragnet”)

    • #27
    • September 3, 2019, at 10:59 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    Disney moved his TV show to NBC in 1961 in part because they could guarantee half-sponsorship by parent RCA, and they quickly signed up Kodak for the other half–in all of America, the two giant companies who stood the most to gain from a public willing to pay more for color. Needless to say, “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” is one of the more blatantly promotional show titles in TV history. 

    It’s true; once CBS lost the color wars, they went from being color’s most fervent advocate to sniffy indifference. First, though, for a brief period they had to prove they could do it just as well as NBC. Then, when early on it became obvious that a color buying boom didn’t materialize, they elected to starve the beast–that is, if you define RCA as the beast, which Bill Paley probably did. 

    ABC, in this period always the lastest with the leastest, had a tiny handful of color shows by 1962, like The Jetsons. They had next to no money for color conversion back in their Poverty Row days, so the only piece of color equipment the network had was a telecine unit (a movie projector with a camera attached) that belonged to their Los Angeles affiliate. The lines that carried the signal were all AT&T’s. It was up to the affiliate stations to pay for the relatively cheap modifications at the transmitter for color. It was later on, when those affiliates had to pony up for color cameras and studios for news, that color would really cost them. By then, they had little choice. 

    • #28
    • September 4, 2019, at 12:58 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  29. cirby Member

    In the late 90s, I was on the technical staff for a meeting where they were hashing out the standard for American HDTV.

    It was pretty interesting: they generally agreed that 1080p/60Hz was a good idea, but the big issue was “how in the hell do we switch this digitally, and what sort of cables can we use?” The general consensus was that they should consider using Apple’s FireWire tech, since it was the only readily available digital format that had that sort of bandwidth available. HDMI and HD-SDI didn’t even exist yet (and I really wish we’d had HD-SDI from the start, since HDMI is fragile and annoying).

    At the time, all of the signals we pushed were five-wire analog (red, green, blue, h-sync, v-sync) through a big analog switching system. There was a medium-sized battle over who got to be the “primary” signal that set the sync for the rest of the equipment that the manufacturers brought in to show on the big projection screen. Big pissing contest with lots of ego involved, over something trivial.

    My buddy Dale (the video engineer) stood there for a while, listening to them argue, and then stepped into the middle of the group.”Okay, here’s how it goes. You,” (points) “are input one. You,” (points) “are input two.” Et cetera, et cetera.

    One of them started to argue some more. “And who are you?”

    Dale just smiled. “I’m the guy pushing the buttons. Any other questions?”

     

    • #29
    • September 4, 2019, at 1:20 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  30. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Post author

    In the late Fifties, the British and the Dutch almost adopted American NTSC as their color system. The British would have kept their unique (and by that point antiquated) 405 line standard. Gradually they settled on having the same number of lines and frames as the rest of Europe was moving towards–625 lines, 50 hz–figuring that at least they’d be able to see each other’s programs, even if only in black and white. But the UK’s engineers liked the US system and RCA was eager to get a foothold in Europe. 

    France was fighting what they saw as total US conquest of technology–electronics, aerospace, atomic energy–and in 1958 they announced their own color system, an advanced variation of NTSC. Their system, SECAM, could use black and white video recorders and was more resistant to picture distortion over long distances, but had compensating flaws. The French pushed hard, through international communications committees, to have it adopted as the standard everywhere outside the US. But they wouldn’t share the patent with other Europeans for free. So the pissed-off Germans developed their own variation, PAL, closer to the US one in some ways. Now there were three “universal” color TV plans. The Americans and the Germans formed a tactical alliance against SECAM. But then the French did something extraordinary; they announced a surprise pact with the USSR that brought the Soviets, their central and eastern European satellites, and their Arab (then) allies into SECAM. West German TV was PAL, East German was SECAM. Charles de Gaulle liked to put on elaborate shows of independence, and SECAM was one of them. 

    • #30
    • September 4, 2019, at 2:01 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
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