Color commentary

Memory Lane

“Not since the advent of color television has there been a more dramatic change in the way the television is experienced in your home.”
– Charter Communications Inc. consumer Web site

“HDTV is the biggest breakthrough in TV since the introduction of color.”
– Mediacom Communications Co. consumer Web site

Apparently, the parallels between the advance of high-definition television today and the introduction of color TV pictures in the mid-1950s are irresistible. But they’re also valid. Both depended on new video transmission techniques plus faith that over time a significant population of receiving devices would find their way into America’s living rooms. Both spawned hugely expensive first-generation TV sets that for a time meant only the wealthiest of Americans could afford them. Both faced a chicken-and-egg dilemma that demanded a symbiosis between programming produced specially for the new medium, and television sets required to see it. Both had to contend – in different ways – with tricky technical compatibility issues.

How color TV made its transformation from a novelty for the wealthy to a market-saturating consumer possession doesn’t offer an exact prescription for the advancement of HDTV, but the similarities are plain.

A colorful history
The FCC adopted a final standard for color TV in 1953 after contentious hearings and a lawsuit filed by David Sarnoff’s RCA against its rival CBS. The standard ultimately adopted was based almost entirely on work conducted by RCA, and represented a huge victory for Sarnoff and his faith in a color TV system first championed to him by the inventor Vladimir Zworykin. $65 million later – after twisting and prodding its original, hulking “Triniscope” color TV system into something far more nimble – RCA won government endorsement of its efforts.

But approval of a standard hardly meant a sudden transformation in the way television looked within the nearly two-thirds of U.S. households that had it. One reason is that when RCA began selling the first commercially available television set model in 1954 – the RCA CT 100 – the price tag of $1,000 was about what it took to buy a new car (and the equivalent of more than $6,000 today). Made up of a hulking wooden box that dwarfed its interior screen, the CT 100 was the 1950’s corollary of the early-to-market HD sets that sold for a cool $7,000 or more. Just as HDTV display costs have plummeted, prices dropped rapidly for color TV sets RCA counted on to drive revenue both for its consumer electronics group and for its NBC Television network.

One divergence between color TV’s ascension and today’s HDTV adoption pattern relates to the staging of a singular event that seemed to change everything. Struggling to meet sales projections, RCA in 1961 realized it had to do something dramatic to bring the color TV medium to life. The decision to lure away from ABC-TV a popular weekly program produced by Walt Disney Co. – and to make a major affair of the fact that it was televised in color – seemed to capture consumer America’s attention in a way that all the magazine advertisements and in-store come-ons had failed to accomplish.

NBC had televised selected programs in color before the September 1961 premiere of the network’s “Walt Disney’s The Wonderful World of Color,” but the Disney program seemed to represent a turning point, and sparked a sudden surge in color TV set sales. By 1966, NBC was broadcasting its entire schedule in color, and about 13 years after its introduction color TV had reached roughly half of U.S. homes.

No such breakthrough programming event has (at least of yet) propelled a sudden surge in HDTV set sales. And it looks as if none is needed. Instead, adoption is displaying a familiar pattern in which a hearty breed of early zealots gives way to mainstream tastes. As of July 2006 about 12 percent of U.S. homes had at least one HDTV set, up from 7 percent a year earlier, according to Leichtman Research Group.

The pattern of rising adoption is the product of a constellation of forces that bear resemblance to those forces kick-starting color TV’s arrival. It took a combination of overarching technology, a standard to support it, affordable retail availability of receiving devices, and compelling programming to produce the modern color TV ecosystem. With a bit of poetic license, the same can be said for HDTV. Color TV’s birth seemed to suggest that if one of the ingredients is missing, the entire construction will waver. That’s a lesson that should color the development of new mass-market information and entertainment technologies for some time to come.

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