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TV Technology 6. The 'Color Wars' by Richard G. Elen


CBS color system test pattern

Television in the UK closed down for the duration of the Second World War. But in the US, broadcasting continued, and new developments were in the air.

The US had a monochrome all-electronic VHF TV, system not unlike that in the UK, with 525 lines interlaced at 60 Hz, the frequency of AC power in the US. American broadcasting was dominated by two giants. RCA, under David Sarnoff, was the dominant monopoly, with its network, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), continually challenged by William Paley's Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). RCA was working on its own colour television system, which was not particularly impressive at the time.

An inventor at CBS, Hungarian expatriate Peter Goldmark, had spent the previous three years trying to challenge RCA's television dominance, and in mid-1940 went to see his first colour movie, Gone with the Wind. He left convinced that he should do everything possible to bring colour to television, and beat the rival corporation.

CBS had, in fact, licensed RCA's all-electronic monochrome television system, but Goldmark now returned to the earlier, mechanical systems developed by Baird - which RCA had put a great deal of effort into laying to rest - coming up with a colour TV system using a spinning disc in front of both electronic monochrome camera and TV set to deliver sequential frames of green, red and blue, which persistence of vision merged into a colour image. Goldmark may even have adapted some of the colour technology that Baird was then working on in London, where in 1939 the British inventor demonstrated sequential-frame 500-line colour, while also working on high-definition (1000-line) transmission and even stereoscopic television, with all-electronic receivers but transmission relying on spinning discs.

Goldmark took his system to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), US broadcasting's regulatory body, where, in a stroke of luck, he found the chairman opposed to market dominance by RCA.

The new CBS colour system, presented in August 1940, was extremely effective, giving bright, sparkling images that were far ahead of RCA's efforts at the time. But the systems were so different that there was no chance of an RCA TV receiver displaying CBS broadcasts.

The FCC was forced to determine the winner of a colour war. CBS saw the public leaving infant black and white television behind and going straight from radio to colour TV. For RCA, on the other hand, colour television built on its domination of the monochrome TV industry and offered a step forward with backward compatibility.

In 1941, the FCC ruled initially in favour of CBS and gave the go-ahead for test transmissions. Although publicly criticised by RCA for the whirling discs, Goldmark contended that these were a temporary measure, to be replaced by electronic means in due course. There was another fundamental difference, however: whereas the RCA system transmitted complete colour information simultaneously, CBS's system transmitted fields of red, green and blue sequentially. It also raised the field rate from 60 fields per second to 144, significantly reducing flicker and giving 24 complete colour images per second - the same as film - at 405 lines (like British VHF TV) rather than the US standard of 525. All these factors meant that a CBS colour signal could not be viewed on an existing set, even in monochrome.

Then came Pearl Harbor and the USA's entry into the war. Colour television was put on hold, and remained so until after hostilities ended.

Prior to the introduction of full-scale television broadcasting, the FCC developed a plan for including television in the broadcast frequency spectrum. VHF TV spread from 44 to 216 MHz, with FM radio stuck in the middle, at 88-108 MHz, where it remains today, while a significant number of UHF channels were proposed in the 470-890 MHz region.

One of the reasons for the visual superiority of the CBS system was that it required significantly greater bandwidth, 16 MHz against monochrome's 6 MHz, for its transmissions - the more bandwidth the better the quality. Indeed, early demonstrations by CBS may have been hard-wired to obtain the bandwidth, as the company did not have a suitable licensed transmitter at the time. CBS needed the wider UHF channels to broadcast - another incompatibility - and relinquished its existing VHF TV licenses (with the exception of its New York station) while putting in a bid for the available UHF channels.

Then came a tremendous shock for CBS. The new FCC chairman, Charles Denny, was not supportive as his predecessor had been. In March 1947, he declared that the FCC would not approve the CBS colour system - or any colour system. Suddenly, the CBS UHF licence applications were worthless, leaving CBS with virtually no TV presence whatsoever. Then in October the FCC chairman resigned - to take up the post of vice-president and general counsel at NBC. Neither for the first time nor the last, Sarnoff had outmanoeuvred his rival.

The delays had allowed Sarnoff's team to improve RCA's colour TV system, although it still looked inferior to the CBS system. In addition, RCA had begun to ramp up its black and white TV set production. TV ownership jumped from 6,000 sets in 1946 to over three million by 1949 - and none could receive CBS's putative UHF signals.

In 1948, the FCC had frozen the licensing of new TV stations, a freeze that lasted four years, no doubt encouraged by the Cold War political atmosphere and the investigation of members of the entertainment industry for 'un-American activities'.

Then, in 1949, the Commission reopened hearings on colour television. CBS regarded them as vital, going so far as to take circuitous routes to the Washington hearings to confuse its opponent, but to Sarnoff at RCA, the battle was already over - his company had over 90% of TV manufacturing capability in the US market and all the sets were VHF-only. In a famous comment during the hearings, when CBS had presented its visually extremely impressive colour system and RCA had shown its inferior offering with a transmission of the chimpanzees' feeding time at the zoo, Sarnoff was heard to remark, "the monkeys were green, the bananas were blue, and everyone had a good laugh."

In September 1950, the FCC decided that the RCA system's poor colour accuracy and registration, interference and the expensive studio and receiver costs made it unsuitable for approval. In addition, it noted that at no time during the hearings had the RCA system offered acceptable colour pictures.

After a long eight months of hearings (they finished on May 26, 1950), the FCC finally found in favour of CBS for colour (and RCA's system for monochrome) - but it made no difference: RCA had won in the marketplace, with nine million of its format sets in American homes. Sarnoff stalled for time by contesting the decision, which the Supreme Court upheld in 1951, by which time sales of RCA-style monochrome sets had hit the 12 million mark.

Consumer popularity of RCA-style monochrome sets was high, and as a result remaining manufacturers endorsed the system, further freezing out CBS, whose only possible chance was to enter the TV manufacturing field itself, and hope to pull off a repeat performance of its success with the vinyl LP disc, where it had triumphed over the prevalent RCA-dominated 78 rpm disc by having its own manufacturing capability. It bought the manufacturer Hytron and renamed it CBS-Columbia.

The move was an expensive disaster. RCA mounted a powerful propaganda campaign against the new dual-standard 12 ½-inch model 12CC2 CBS-Columbia sets - the only CBS Color System set ever made, launched in September 1951 - and the public was unwilling to buy them: they were an expensive $500. Two hundred were apparently shipped and only half that sold: the only colour programming they could receive was about 12 hours a week of 'colorcasts'.

CBS was forced to surrender, $50 million poorer. The government issued an order that the production of colour sets should cease, to 'conserve materials for defense' - a move widely regarded as being designed to get CBS off the hook - and the final commercial broadcast in the CBS Color System went out on 20 October 1951: a football game between North Carolina and Maryland. The colour sets were recalled and virtually all destroyed.

On 25 March 1953, the FCC recognised the market situation and, as it had in the past, endorsed it, making the former RCA colour system, by now called NTSC (National Television Standards Committee) - with many of its technical deficiencies plus several significant advances contributed from many different companies - the standard. The ban on colour set manufacture was rescinded the following day.

With the competition beaten, however, RCA was in no hurry to introduce colour. Its first colour sets went on sale in 1954, but for ten years colour was reserved for Christmas specials and sporting events; regular colour programming did not become a reality until 1964, and colour sets did not outsell black and white receivers until 1968. Nor was RCA left with a small bill: colour development ended up costing it a grand total of $130 million - but it was the winner in the colour wars.

Sources include
Laurence Bergreen, Look Now, Pay Later, (Mentor, 1980)
Ed Reitan's site at
Bob Cooper's
CBS colour test card image at:
CBScolour set pic at:

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