What the 50-Year History of Color TV Teaches Us About Early Adopters

If you build it, you're still gonna need something worthwhile to watch on it.

Justin March

Fifty years ago, NBC executives were toying with the idea of becoming the first North American broadcast network to begin airing all (or nearly all) of primetime shows in color. The technology was not new — this was more than 25 years after RCA debuted the Dot-Sequential Color System — but the ambition was. NBC’s brass wanted to lead the way and jump into RGB bandwidth, but the returns weren’t a foregone conclusion. That’s why no one had done it before.

When the fall lineup debuted, Kodachrome had nothing on the network. The age of color TV had finally arrived, straggling on the heels of technology.

The decision made at 30 Rock 50 years ago has its modern parallels, notably the shift from standard-definition to high-definition picture. But unlike today’s consumers, Americans living in the ‘60s didn’t have a ton of options. They basically had three channels and whatever color those channels chose to run.

Given that, it makes sense that the networks were reluctant to broadcast in color until more viewers had TVs capable of translating the broadcast information into moving images. In 1954, only 5,000 color TV units had been sold, at an average price of $400. By 1960, the number had ticked up to 120,000, but the average price had dropped only $8.00. The networks were in no rush to get color programming out when when there was clearly not significant middle class demand. Lack of color TVs meant a lack of color programming, and lack of color programming meant a lack of color TVs.

It was the chicken and the egg, but with a peacock.

Except it wasn’t quite that simple. Other factors stymied color TV adoption. By 1950, CBS had staged demonstrations of a proprietary color TV technology — a cheaper set that used electromechnical parts as opposed to RCA’s electronic method — and the FCC had decided to adopt CBS’ technology, even though RCA’s system was superior. The FCC didn’t care because they wanted to push the market. But materials were scarce after the Korean War hit and CBS wasn’t a manufacturing company. They dropped out, ceding the market to RCA, which, in 1953, formalized an agreement with the FCC to make its tech standard.

By the 1960s, the market was saturated in black-and-white sets, so TV manufacturers (read: RCA) needed something new to sell to consumers. And this is where we point out that RCA owned NBC.

In 1966, just one year after NBC flipped the switch from black-and-white to color, American consumers bought more color TV sets than black-and-white sets and the $100 million RCA spent developing color TV started to look well spent. Over 5,000,000 million units were sold in 1970, and the number has steadily increased every year since.

The adoption of HDTV, since it was first introduced in the U.S. in 1998, has been far more rapid than the adoption of color. Part of that has to do with the fact that our TVs aren’t the only screens we’re looking at and we want high quality video on everything we use. But the major driver has been the move from analog TV signals to digital signals.

High-definition picture nowadays is delivered by digital TVs. In 2005, the government stepped in to begin mandating the shift from analog to digital signals, and it’s helped incentivize broadcasters to start offering HD channels to viewers — and for cable companies to make them available to households. Now, 70 percent of all TVs are used in high-definition.

But streaming services have basically crushed the broadcast networks’ grip on getting TV shows to consumers. There is no singular night like “TGIF” or “Must-See Thursday” that pulls a big chunk of Americans together and dominates the pop-culture talk for the next day or so. Any new TV technology will need to figure out a way to provide that same cultural punch that makes everyone want to watch the same thing with the same kind of TV device.

Virtual reality television seems poised to make that leap. At South By Southwest last year, HBO demonstrated what Game Of Thrones would look like on Oculus Rift, sending viewers into the episode itself. Each user’s experience in watching the show differed, which meant that Thrones junkies could spend even more time sharing their individual, controversial views.

Open worlds present an obvious opportunity, but if the advent of color television shows anything it’s that the existence of a technology doesn’t guarantee its widespread adoption. Through NBC and primetime programming, RCA was able to make having a color television feel almost mandatory. Until there is a program (or more) on virtual reality that represents a mass cultural experience, anticipate adoption to be slow. If Oculus Rift wants growth in the short term, it may actually prove less expensive to invest in content than in tech, but — either way — it could take a while.

If virtual reality television takes advantage of being able to immerse users in huge worlds (like Westeros), it could very easily take off as the next milestone in television technology and avoid finding itself damned to color TV purgatory.