Color TV Turns 50

Rose Parade marks the beginning of the end of black-and-white


It was 50 years ago on New Year's Day, that NBC made history with the first live national broadcast in "living color," over a 22-city network hastily constructed by AT&T. The event, the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., was tailor-made to demonstrate color television technology.

Only a few thousand people actually saw the parade in color on TV that day. For the occasion, RCA built a special run of only 200 color sets-designated the Model 5 (the prototype number)-for the NBC affiliates and RCA Victor retail distributors. Other manufacturers, wanting to enter the color TV business, also built their own prototypes for the occasion. The idea was to build excitement about color TV, and it did.

The first consumer color televisions hit the market a few weeks later, with 5,000 units rolling off the RCA assembly line in Bloomington, Ind. in March, 1954. Nicknamed "the Merrill," the RCA Model CT-100 had a 12-inch diagonal screen and cost a whopping $1,000 (well over $6,000 by today's standards).

Since only 31 stations in the United States had color capability, there wasn't much to watch. In fact, any color program broadcast in the 1950s was a big event. Just before the inaugural live Rose Parade broadcast, the first filmed series to have a color episode aired was "Dragnet" in December 1953. Other notable events were the first color broadcast of a president (Dwight Eisenhower in June 1955) and the first color broadcast of the World Series (Dodgers vs. Yankees in September 1955).

Even with these special broadcasts, it would be a long time before most Americans experienced color television in their living rooms. Those indelible images from the November 1963 Kennedy assassination-ten years after the Rose parade colorcast-were still in black and white.

The tide began to turn in the early '60s, after about half-a-million color sets had been sold. Walt Disney's "Wonderful World of Color" began in 1961. The first color cartoons, the "Flintstones" and the "Jetsons," began in the fall of 1962. However, to baby boomers and their parents, one show would come to define the move to color television. The first episode of "Bonanza" aired on Sept. 12, 1959.


Shot on location in the scenic Lake Tahoe area, this NBC western was filmed in color to showcase color technology from RCA, NBC's parent corporation. At first, Bonanza aired on Saturday nights, where it bombed in the ratings. Kept alive simply because it was in color, the show was moved after its first two seasons to Sunday nights, where it found an audience and became a huge hit for 14 seasons.

From 1964 to 1967, "Bonanza" was the single most watched television program in America. The year 1966 also signaled NBC's switch to an all-color network. During this period, sales of color television sets finally took off. By the end of '60s, the black-and-white era was over.

As with the current transition to digital television, the road to color also took a complex, tortured path. The earliest recorded patent for color television dates back to 1904 in Germany. A steady stream of developments occurred from then on. In 1940, CBS, under the leadership of Peter Goldmark, designed a mechanical color system based on designs from the 1920s. In 1950, the FCC named the CBS technology-called the Field Sequential Color System-the U.S. national standard.

Competitor RCA sued to stop CBS's technology. Though RCA eventually lost the lawsuit, it won the technology war by causing delay. The CBS system had a temporal alias problem, with 144 fields per second compared to NTSC's 59.94-and was incompatible with the more than 10 million black-and-white TV sets that had been already sold.

Consumers avoided expensive, incompatible TV sets that could receive little color programming. Eventually, sluggish sales and a prohibition on color television receiver manufacturing during the Korean War caused the CBS initiative to fail.

RCA followed the war with a better design, based on the 1947 patent application of RCA researcher Alfred Schroeder for a shadow mask cathode ray tube. RCA's improved color system employed a shadow mask full of tiny holes. Electron guns, one each for red, green and blue, targeted light through the holes to create phosphors for each primary color.

Most importantly, it avoided the trap that had caused failure for CBS. RCA's new system was backwardly compatible with the existing black-and-white television system. Color programs could be received in black and white on standard 6 MHz TV channels. RCA's contribution was rolled into the color standard that came to be known as NTSC, and was approved by the FCC in late 1953.


Ed Reitan, then ten years old, remembers being rustled out of bed very early the snowy morning of Jan. 1, 1954 for a ride in the family Studebaker to the Paxton Hotel in downtown Omaha, Neb. In the lobby, he swept past a placard displaying General David Sarnoff's picture as he entered a "dark and mysterious grand ballroom" filled with about 400 people.

"Across the side wall of the pitch-black ballroom were five flickering television receivers," he said. "Three were conventional 21-inch black-and-white sets. But between them were two bulky, red-mahogany cabinets with small but incredibly beautiful color pictures on them. The cabinets had only 12-inch screens, so tiny and blurry that you had to look at the larger black-and-white screens to recognize detail. But it was color and it was gorgeous-rich Technicolor reds, greens, and blues."

Reitan retained a vivid memory of the rich velvet purples on the cape of a horseman riding in the parade past the two NBC (prototype pre-production RCA TK-40) cameras. "Suddenly it was no longer a dull black-and-white world, just like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, the world was now in living color," he said.

Reitan recalled that he was so excited, his father had to practically drag him from the RCA demonstration. He peppered his father with questions about the 90-minute WOW-TV, (Omaha's NBC affiliate, now WOWT-TV) color broadcast all the way home. The day had made a life-long impression.

Today, Reitan, a developer of air-traffic control systems who lives in Los Angeles, has assembled an informative Web site on the history of color television: He also personally owns one of a handful of the known remaining RCA Model 5 prototypes made for the Rose parade broadcast. In 1989, Reitan received a technical Emmy Award for his restoration of the earliest color videotapes.

In its coverage of the 1954 Rose parade broadcast, "The New York Times" said, "With so many sets in operation, each subject to relatively critical tuning controls and possible vagaries of electronics, the quality of the tinted images from Pasadena undoubtedly varied on some receivers. But, overall, there is no question that the essence of the parades' panorama of color was projected successfully on home screens some 3,000 miles away. In comparison, the monochrome pictures seen on existing receivers seemed virtually meaningless."

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.