September 1959 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
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
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 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 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
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 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 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
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 plus
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
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! .
Color Television Articles
Posted April 5, 2012