Design Con 2015

Lessons from history: The adoption of color TV

-December 01, 2000


History does indeed repeat itself. Look closely at how the United States adopted color TV and you'll discover some surprising parallels to the current situation with digital TV.

The old RCA, the inventor of color TV, first demonstrated a broadcast system using a still frame in 1946, according to Alex Magoun, director of the David Sarnoff Library at Sarnoff Labs in Princeton, NJ. By the fall of 1949, it had progressed to demonstrating a color TV with moving pictures. By this time, however, CBS had emerged with a different color TV technology that used electromechanical parts, rather than RCA's electronic method. After the two companies staged demonstrations before the FCC, the commission adopted CBS' system, despite a report from the National Bureau of Standards that said that the RCA system was superior to the CBS method in 12 out of 18 categories, and that it had a much higher potential for significant improvements.


The FCC's attitude about color TV was similar to today's dispute over 8-VSB versus COFDM. "The FCC said let's have color TV right now. Why can't we?" notes Magoun. The RCA system had technical problems, he admits, but it was nearly impossible to "explain to lay people why electronic color is really difficult."

Meanwhile, the Korean War broke out in 1950, and the Defense Department was asking manufacturers to conserve certain materials, some of which went into producing color TV sets. In addition, CBS-which had never manufactured TVs-found that color TVs were not so easy to build, according to Magoun. Luckily for RCA, CBS decided to pull out of the market. "That gave RCA a chance to improve its technology and rally support for it."

In December 1953, the FCC reversed its decision and bestowed the standard on RCA. Several manufacturers agreed to build the sets in 1954. "That's when all the troubles began," says Magoun. The initial sets didn't work very well. The color was inaccurate, the picture was low quality, plus there was very little color programming available. By 1956, everyone but RCA had pulled out of manufacturing color TVs.

Then, a number of factors coincided to give color another chance. RCA, which had been under antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed to license its color technology for free. Meanwhile, the company continued to market color TV and to improve its performance. In addition, the market had become saturated by black-and-white sets, so it was ripe for the new technology, notes Magoun. Then, in the early 1960s, David Sarnoff and the board of RCA ordered NBC, the network it owned, to air all of its primetime programming in color.

Still, color TV sets didn't outsell black and whites until 1966, 22 years after RCA's initial demonstration of the technology. Magoun estimates that RCA spent about $100 million developing color TV before the company saw its first penny of profit.

Magoun compares that history with today's HDTV development. The adoption depends on politics and government and/or industry officials that declare that the American consumer needs this technology, right away. "As a result, you get this forced draft of a technology," he explains. "These [technical] people knock themselves out.and then you have this challenge of selling something that people don't really have a need for."-T.H.


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