September 1959 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
People old and young enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history
of early electronics. Popular Electronics was published from October 1954 through April 1985. All copyrights
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When color televisions hit the stores in 1954,
most households could not afford one. For that matter, most households could not afford a black and
white TV, either. By 1959 when this article appeared in Popular Electronics, TV in general was still
a novelty to most people. It is amusing to read about how much more lifelike everything would appear
when broadcast in "living color." Well, duh. It's as if it never occurred to anyone that the images
previously did not contain color like the real world did.
I was born in 1958, and remember that my family's was last of all the households I knew of to own
a color television set. We never even had a console floor model, just small tabletop pieces of junk.
It was a big deal the day I, at about age 16, bought and installed a remote rotor for the rooftop antenna
so we could receive more than three stations. There was no cable TV service in our neighborhood (not
that we could have afforded it). I recall being amazed the first time I watched The Flintstones
in color and discovered that Dino the dinosaur was purple and that Wilma had red hair! Who'd have known?
It wasn't until after I went into the USAF in 1978 that my parents ever owned a TV as large as 21" (not
having to feed and clothe me probably helped). Today, Melanie and I own just a single TV set, and it
is a Sharp 26" LCD. Most Welfare recipients relegate their taxpayer-purchased TVs that small to the
kitchen or bathroom.
Special Report on Color TV Today
by Furman Hebb
All photographs courtesy of National Broadcasting Company
What's the truth about color TV? Is it everything it's claimed to be? Here are the facts.
In 1954, when color television first became a commercial reality, the experts all foresaw a rosy
future for it. John. Q. Public was supposed to march right down to his local appliance store and lay
his money on the line for one of the new multi-hued models.
But this John Q. Public did not do, and five years and 130 million dollars later (RCA's estimated
investment), what has been color TV's lot? Judged by any business man's standards, it has gone over
a like a lead balloon. Out of a total of 45 million TV sets now in use, less than 500,000, or only about
1%, are color sets.
Ask the man on the street what he thinks of color TV, and chances are he hasn't even seen it yet.
If he has seen it, he will probably say: (1) the quality is poor, (2) it's too expensive, (3) it's too
difficult to tune, (4) there aren't enough color programs, and (5) color sets break down too often.
Musical and variety shows are naturals for color TV. The Dinah Shore show is particularly "colorgenic."
Perry Como and Steve Allen are also color favorites. Note the color background possibilities.
Facts About Color TV. Despite the fact that RCA has spent millions of dollars advertising and promoting
color TV, the foregoing impressions are strongly implanted in the minds of a great many people. The
awful pity of the situation is that, for the most part, these impressions do not reflect the true facts.
After having surveyed a number of color TV set owners and service technicians all over the country,
and after having lived with a color set for a period of four months, the writer has come to the following
conclusions: (1) the visual quality of color TV usually varies from good to very good and is often truly
superb, (2) the sets are not difficult to tune, (3) there is still not a wide choice of programs, but
color programing appears to be getting stronger with each new season, (4) the service problem is not
significantly more important than it is with a black-and-white set (excluding one major consideration
which we'll get to later), and (5) as far as price is concerned, although color sets are undeniably
expensive, the results of our survey of color set owners indicate that the great majority feel they
have received full value from their sets.
Special outstanding programs have been presented in color. The award-winning "An Evening with Fred Astaire"
was one. Others included the Old Vic presentation of "Hamlet," and "The Green Pastures."
Musical and variety shows are naturals for color TV. The Dinah Shore show is particularly
"colorgenic." Perry Como and Steve Allen are also color favorites. Note the color background possibilities.
Color Set Owners. To find out exactly what people who own color sets think of color TV, a number
of owners were surveyed by mail. These people hailed from such diverse areas as: Lansing, Mich.; Elizabeth,
N. J.; York, Pa.; Whittier, Calif.; Fishkill, N. Y.; Portsmouth, Ohio; Chicago; and Milwaukee.
Typical replies to the question, "What is your overall impression of color TV?" were: "Beautiful,"
"Great," "Magnificent," "Exciting," and so on.
"Just one good color program a week offsets any additional cost of a color TV set," one enthusiastic
fan wrote. "Color TV is far more natural than color movies."
Another commented, "After two years with a color TV set, we cannot contemplate any other means of
home TV entertainment. We seldom miss a color program. Only rarely do we go to movies because color
TV is so satisfying."
The clincher was added by another fan. "We even enjoy commercials in color."
Almost unanimously, the owners reported that their sets have been easy to operate and have performed
reliably. None had encountered problems in getting his set serviced. Most have found occasional adjustments
of the controls necessary, but none considered these adjustments difficult to make.
When asked how well their color sets received black-and-white programs, the set owners generally
agreed that a monochrome image is less sharp on a color set than on an ordinary set. In addition, most
color set owners reported a slight color tint (usually a light bluish-green) on black-and-white programs.
However, few people objected to either the "soft" monochrome image or the color tint on the screen.
In general, the color set owners felt that black-and-white reception on their color sets was as good
as on their monochrome sets.
Although antenna requirements are more demanding for color than black-and-white reception, the great
majority of the color owners surveyed use their old antennas with their color sets. Some, indeed, located
near TV transmitters, report that they use only an indoor "rabbit ears" antenna.
The concluding question on the questionnaire was, "Do you think the enjoyment made possible by your
color TV set has been worth the money you paid for it?" To this most important question, the answer
was a unanimous "Yes."
Service Technicians. In order to get opinions on color TV from the technical point of view, it was
decided to quiz the men who service color sets. The service technicians surveyed were scattered from
St. Louis to Sacramento, Chicago to Fort Worth, and from New Orleans to Garfield Heights, Ohio. They
have been handling color TV set repairs for an average period of four years, and each turns out about
57 color repairs a month. They indicated that, although in their experience color sets require slightly
more repair than black-and-white models, breakdowns of color sets are usually caused, not by defects
in the color circuitry, but by failures which are common to both color and black-and-white sets - such
as loss of sound, no vertical deflection, power supply failure, etc.
Sports will receive color coverage this fall. NBC will telecast the World Series, 11 major football
games, (including four "bowl" games) and the Davis Cup tennis matches. Color gives sporting events a
feeling of depth and realism.
It was generally agreed that it is slightly more difficult to a repair a color set than a black-and-white
set. The average repair cost reflected this; whereas the average repair bill for a black-and-white
set was reported to be about $25.00, the average color set repair amounted to about $30.00.
Of the technicians surveyed, half already own color sets and the remaining half indicated that they
plan to buy color sets. In general, they feel that color TV is "very good" and they would be very optimistic
about its future if the number of color shows were to increase.
Special outstanding programs have been presented in color. The award-winning "An
Evening with Fred Astaire" was one. Others included the Old Vie presentation of "Hamlet," and "The Green
Tough Row to Hoe. Any discussion of color TV should point out that two closely linked corporations,
RCA and its affiliate NBC, in truth, are color TV. These two colossi of the electronics world together
have produced well over 90% of all the color programs transmitted and over 90% of the sets to receive
them on. With very little support from the rest of the industry, they have taken on the task of selling
color TV to the American public. At this time, with over 130 million dollars sunk into poly-chrome TV,
it is most unlikely that they will slacken their efforts.
But RCA and NBC, in their efforts to popularize color TV, are confronted by a double-headed monster:
price and programing. If these two problems could be solved, there is no doubt that color TV would fulfill
every optimistic speculation of five years ago.
Obviously if there were a wider choice of color programs, a person would have a much greater incentive
to buy a color set than he has presently. However, color programing will never be what it can be until
more color sets are in use. NBC's biggest competitors, ABC and CBS, have made it quite clear that they
will start doing a bang-up color programing job only when "the people want it" - meaning, of course,
when enough people have color sets to make it economically attractive to sell color shows to sponsors.
In the meantime, NBC has to keep color programing going practically single-handedly; ABC hasn't done
anything in color and CBS makes only a token contribution to color programing.
Panel shows are probably the most fruitless subject for color TV. When the typical viewer sees "the
Price Is Right" or "Haggis Baggis," in color, he may well say, "So it's in color - so what?"
Looking at things from a TV set manufacturer's viewpoint, you can't' really blame him for being hesitant
about going into the business of turning out high-priced color sets at a time when many people would
refuse to buy them because of the lack of more color programing. Consequently, with both the networks
and the TV manufacturers waiting for the others to make the first move, color TV is caught in the middle
of a game of "let's-wait-and-see." The question is: Which will come first, the chicken (in the form
of lower priced color sets) or the egg (more and better color programs)?
Quality of Color. As far as the visual quality of the finished product is concerned, as indicated
earlier, it is variable - but rarely less than acceptable. Good color TV is a color experience as exciting
and beautiful as any you'll ever run across - and this includes the results of any printing process
and the highest quality color film.
If you have seen color TV in a store or in a bar and haven't been impressed, there can be two explanations:
first, the set might not have been properly adjusted, and secondly, the level of illumination in the
room may have been too high. In order for color TV to look its best, it must be shown in a considerably
darker room than is suitable for black-and-white TV. If the room lighting is too bright, the picture
will look weak and washed out: if the color control is turned up excessively in an attempt to give the
picture more pep; it is almost impossible to achieve the correct color balance. Live shows which originate
under studio conditions generally provide the best color quality. The "Dinah Shore Chevy Show" comes
live from California and is undoubtedly the top color show on the air. On the other hand, the "Steve
Allen Show," which is also live, is less consistent in its color quality. This just proves it's not
only the process, but the man behind the process, that counts. Dinah apparently has better technicians.
Filmed color, if expertly done, is almost as good as live color. "Northwest Passage," a filmed adventure
series, generally has very good color, especially in the outdoor sequences.
To date, color-taped shows have been less satisfactory than either of the other two methods, with
the color frequently appearing unsaturated and weak. Perhaps as the recorders and the tape are improved,
color video tape will rival the other two processes. This would be very important economically, since
color tape is about 15% cheaper than color film.
Truly poor color quality is almost always caused in the studio rather than in the receiver. Getting
the light evenly distributed over the stage is a very ticklish problem. Occasionally a performer who
is off-center falls into an area of illumination which is either "hot" or "cold." When this happens,
his face may go out of color balance and turn either greenish or bluish-red. In severe cases, the unlucky
actor may look as if he came from another planet. Improper color balance can be corrected in the studio,
and distortions of this type will probably disappear as technicians become more skilled and as the equipment
is made more self-correcting.
Sports will receive color coverage this fall. NBC will telecast the World Series,
11 major football games (including four "bowl" games) and the Davis Cup tennis matches. Color gives
sporting events a feeling of depth and realism.
Depth and Realism. The most frequent words you'll find applied to color TV in the advertisements
are "depth" and "realism." Now these don't mean much when you read them. They're just words. But the
truth of the matter is that color does bring a genuine feeling of depth to the TV screen. When objects
and people appear in their natural colors, you seem to see them inside the picture tube, rather than
on the screen of the tube. It's not a true "3-D" effect, of course, but sometimes it comes remarkably
This feeling of depth accounts for part of the "realism" of color TV. But the different colors themselves
add interest and realism. In color TV, as in painting, it is possible for the most banal subject to
become a visually interesting experience by virtue of its color values alone. No matter what the subject
matter, if color is handled skillfully, it can be enormously exciting.
The Sets Themselves. The first color sets had 15" screens, four controls for color alone, and were
priced at a cozy $1000. In addition, the four controls worked together something like a combination
lock. Each had to be set in just the right position before a good color picture could be received.
Color sets today have 21" screens, use only two extra "color" controls, and are priced as low as
$495.00. This isn't exactly cheap, of course, but from time to time special offers bring the price down
From the user's point of view, the greatest improvement in today's color sets over earlier models
is the ease of tuning. There is no longer just one correct "combination." If you misadjust one control,
it is usually possible to compensate with either the other color control or the fine' tuning, or by
a slight reorientation of the antenna (if it's handy).
The two color controls are: (1) COLOR, which acts as a volume control, adjusting the intensity of
the color, and (2) TINT, which varies the color balance. After the set is adjusted for normal black-and-white
reception, when a color program comes on all you do is set the COLOR control for the minimum amount
of color required to saturate the screen satisfactorily and then adjust the TINT, or color balance control,
for natural flesh tones. If this is done, all colors will automatically come in with the correct balance.
Panel shows are probably the most fruitless subject for color TV. When the typcal
viewer sees "the Price Is Right" or "Haggis Baggis," in color, he may well say, "So it's in color-so
The Servicing Problem. When the first color sets came on the market, the price for an RCA one-year
service contract was $149.50. Today, the price has come down to $69.50. Included in the $69.50 is installation
and one year's service, with all parts being factory-guaranteed for the first year. However, since the
parts guarantee expires after the first year, the price of a service contract jumps up in following
For these succeeding years, RCA offers two types of service contracts: a complete-coverage plan for
$119.50 per year; or a "Preferred Rate" plan for $79.50 a year. The latter contract covers all parts
and "limited" service - meaning that a flat fee of $5.95 is charged for each service call after the
Now, do you really need a service contract? It boils down to how much of a gambler you are. Look
at it this way: since a color set has more tubes than a comparable black-and-white set, it's common
sense to expect more breakdowns from a color set. For some reason, though, the incidence of color set
repair has not been nearly as high as some people expected.
Anyway, let's assume you'll have just a little more trouble with a color set than black-and-white
set. Let's say, for example, that instead of calling a service man three times every two years, you
call him twice a year. If the average cost of a color set repair were $30.00, you would pay only $60.00
a year as opposed to either $119.50 or $85.45 ($79.50 plus one free call and one $5.95 call) in service
If a color set didn't have a hidden "joker," it would seem to be a pretty safe risk to go without
a service contract. But there's one little item in a color set that isn't found in a black-and-white
set-the color picture tube. If your color picture tube burns out, you will suffer the ultimate disaster.
You can figure on paying about $150.00 for color picture tube replacement plus service.
So, when you buy a service contract, to a great extent you are paying insurance on the picture tube.
While there has been no unusual amount of difficulty with color picture tubes (replacements are currently
running in about the same ratio as black-and-white picture tubes), you can see why it takes quite a
gambler to operate a color set without a service contract.
Future of Color TV. There are sever indications that color TV may really get going either this year
or next year. First of all, NBC has announced a very attractive schedule for the fall which outlines
250 hours of color programing, 30% more than was presented during the same period last year. The NBC
line-up will include all the NBC color regulars such as Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Steve Allen, etc.,
and will feature numerous color "specials" - musicals, plays, educational programs, comedy and sports.
Included in the sports coverage will be the World Series and 11 major football games. Accompanying this
truly excellent color schedule will quite likely be a full-scale advertising campaign for color
Also, news that the Admiral Corporation is plunging into the production of a complete line of color
sets points to a new confidence in the future of color TV. Admiral envisages a mass market opening up
As mentioned earlier, the two things holding up color TV are price and, programming. With NBC's increase
of "color programing this fall, at least part of the problem is being solved. It is doubtful, however,
that any tremendous breakthrough will come until the price of the sets comes down. When color sets are
priced within $100 of comparable black-and-white models, then color TV will come into its own. Until
that time it seems probable that it will make steady but unspectacular progress.
Color TV and You. Now for the $64 question - or more exactly, the $495 question: Should you buy color
Very frankly, it all depends on how much money you have. If you can afford a boat, or an extra car,
or an automatic dishwasher, then the enjoyment you will get from a color TV set should be well worth
what you pay for it. And even if you can't really "afford" a set, it might still be worth $495 to you.
One word of warning, though, if you get a color set, don't tell your friends - unless you're prepared
to spend your evenings demonstrating it. And don't forget to order the beer and pretzels! .
Posted April 5, 2012