The centerpiece article in the January 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics introduced its readers to the technical world of color television. Its title, “Color TV is Here” implies a sense of relief – finally we can see the televised world in a palette that reflects reality. Color was far from new when it came to moving images. At the cinema, the 1939 double-dose of Technicolor brilliance captured in Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz helped to anchor color film in popular culture. And, by 1950, Eastman Kodak’s monopack system made color film production even easier. At home, color television had been a long-standing promise with a lot of fanfare, but its lack of realization had begun to frustrate its supporters. Much like the early history of color photography, many complicated experiments occurred before the process was simplified and perfected enough to make a mass impact. Although test broadcasts using color equipment had been made in 1951 by CBS Broadcasting, it was not feasible to execute this mode of television on a large scale. Slow sales, bitter lawsuits, and a halt on broadcasting experiments as a result of the Korean War all played their part in a sluggish beginning for the new medium.
One of the biggest hurdles for color broadcasting was the need to conserve bandwidth. Many companies tested ideas, but it was RCA’s “all-electronic” system that eventually won the approval of the National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) in June 1953. By splitting information related to image and brightness into separate signals, less bandwidth was used. In the television studio, RCA TK-40 and TK-41 cameras were the first favorites to broadcast live color images, and remained the preferred technology through the 1960s.
When NBC finally debuted coast-to-coast color broadcasting, its subject matter was the Tournament of Roses parade on January 1, 1954. At this point, the ability for Americans to experience telecasts in color was no longer a futuristic fantasy, but an achievable reality. The full spectrum of the parade’s spectacle, however, was only viewable on a handful of prototype televisions by an elite group of advertising executives and investors. Mass production of televisions soon began, but the cost for early color models remained extraordinarily high. RCA Victor’s first production television for the home, the CT-100, cost $995 in 1954—the equivalent of $8500 today! Sales remained slow in the 1950s.
[caption id="attachment_19630" align="aligncenter" width="700"] Marie McNamara, a test model who became known as “Miss Color TV” for her role in NBC late-night color tests. [Broadcast News. Color Television Issue. Camden, N.J: Radio Corporation of America, Number 77, January-February 1954.] (ID: 99.190.2)[/caption]Before telecasts went live, each camera had to be “tuned,” much like a musical instrument. Cameramen were trained to make adjustments to the camera by focusing on and matching large color wheels wheeled onto the filming stage. Set and costume design played up a range of bright hues to be broadcast: colorful backgrounds and multi-layered costumes on actors highlighted the medium’s potential. The NBC peacock’s rainbow tail confidently fanned its plumage across the screens of viewers.
In preparation for the adoption of color programming, New York’s NBC-TV conducted late-night experiments with their “test girls,” who would appear for work in the small hours of the morning after the network had signed off. Marie McNamara was employed as a “living color chart” for two and a half years, and was referred to as “the loveliest guinea pig of the electronic era.” Her porcelain skin tone and shocking red hair put McNamara in a difficult telecast range, but if camera operators could get “Miss Color TV” looking good, the cameras were considered to be perfectly aligned. McNamara built up a cult following, as night owl viewers began to stay up past The Late, Late Show to see the silent, smiling woman. Some viewers even learned to lip-read in order to understand what she was chatting about with the television engineers working in the background.
In spite of NBC’s national color broadcast in 1954, programming for the next decade remained spotty. A small ratio of network programming was broadcast in color, but the majority of local programming stayed in black-and-white. And the lack of color programs is one reason why monochrome television owners were suspicious of making the switch. It took until the mid to late 1960s for viewers to indulge in the purchase of a color set.
Several factors are thought to have helped to catalyze this decision. First, in 1961, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color began broadcasting on Sunday evenings. The self-referential title reminded black-and-white viewers of the spectacle they were missing. In this same spirit, popular shows like The Andy Griffith Show, The Adventures of Superman, and The Lucy Show began to transition from filming in black-and-white to color. Second, 1966 was the first year of a full color prime time schedule, and NBC became the first all-color network that same year. More programming in color led to more viewer interest and willingness to invest in a stable technology. And finally, by the end of the 1960s, color sales were starting to pick up, with a more approachable set on the market for $495.
Once, Allen B. Dumont, television inventor and network owner, assured the public:
Nobody believes that color will completely replace black and white. There wouldn’t be much point in seeing wrestling bouts or horse races in color. […] There will always be plenty of monochrome shows to watch. (Popular Mechanics, Jan 1954, 282)
From the patience of engineers to that of businesses waiting selling the product, the early days of color television production and commerce were as finely calibrated as cameras upon a test girl. In 1972 color television sales finally defeated those of their monochrome cousins; two years later, two-thirds of American households had color sets.
Day, Michael. “Color TV is Here,” Popular Mechanics Magazine. Jan 1954.
Lind, A.H. “RCA Model TM-10A Color Video Monitor,” Broadcast News, Camden, N.J.: Radio Corporation of America, No.77, Jan/Feb 1954.
Magoun, Alexander B. Television: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007.
Ovington, Reg. “TV’s Only Silent Star,” Detroit Times Sunday Pictorial Review. April 18, 1954.
Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.
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