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 are hereby acknowledged. See all articles from
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
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
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
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
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
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 Pastures."
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
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
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
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
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 close.
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
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 more.
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 what?"
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 years.
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 first
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 contracts.
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
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 in 1961.
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 TV now?
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