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First color television sets were sold 50 years ago

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

By Richard Powelson, Scripps Howard News Service

Color television is celebrating some 50th anniversary milestones, but many Americans did not enjoy it until the late 1960s or so, when set prices dropped and consumers heard their favorite shows were suddenly in color.

 
 
Color TV highlights

1946-1950: RCA Laboratories develops color TV system that later tests well and becomes national standard in late1953.

October 1950: Federal Communications Commission approves CBS color TV technology as the national standard but reverses decision in December 1953.

June 25, 1951: CBS airs color entertainment show "Premiere," including Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey, in four cities. Transmission to small number of CBS-Columbia TV receivers, but existing black-and-white sets cannot receive programs without converter unit.

Aug. 11, 1951: First baseball game broadcast in color by CBS under temporary national standard (Brooklyn Dodgers at Boston Braves).

Dec. 17, 1953: FCC approves RCA color transmission system as national standard that transmits programs both to new color TVs and to existing black-and-white sets. About 23 million black-and- white sets sold up to this date.

Dec. 30, 1953: Admiral color TV sales begin, but slowly.

Jan. 1, 1954: NBC does first coast-to-coast color broadcast through 21 stations, showing Tournament of Roses Parade. Industry employees, VIPs, others view on about 200 RCA Victor prototype color sets.

March 1954: Westinghouse offers color TV for sale. Cost: $1,295.

March 25, 1954: Mass production of first RCA Victor color sets, model CT-100. Cost: $1,000.

Sept. 28, 1955: First color coverage of World Series baseball games.

Sept. 12, 1959: "Bonanza" begins airing in color.

Sept. 24, 1961: "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" begins one-hour color programs every Sunday.

Fall 1962: ABC shows cartoons "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons" in color.

Fall 1965: ABC airs "Lawrence Welk Show" in color.

Fall 1965: CBS runs "Ed Sullivan Show" in color.

Nov. 7, 1966: NBC is first network to complete conversion of all new programs to color.

1972: First year color set sales exceed black-and-white sales.

   
 

"It was a chicken and egg thing," said 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, said 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, said 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 the NBC TV network 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 show, Arland said.

During 1956, there were 486 hours of color programs, and by 1964 all three broadcast networks had a lot of shows in color, Magoun said. 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 said, and remained profitable after that. Magoun is writing a book about the history of television -- from various dreams since the 1870s to reality.

Early color TV development used three picture tubes -- red, green and blue -- and filters and mirrors to project one color image. Magoun said 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.davidsarnoff.org.

Genova, now 54, began his fascination with television as a college student repairing televisions part time. After an 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 that 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.

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 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 said it will be exciting to see 3-D 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 said.

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