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TELEVISION: Window on the World - Section E: In Living Color

Jeffrey Syken

“Now, we add sight to sound”
David Sarnoff

When Sarnoff, president of RCA, formally introduced television to the world (from a podium in front of the RCA Exhibit Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair), he heralded it as: “the birth of a new art and a new industry, which eventually will provide entertainment and information for millions.” He was right. There were many others who would be instrumental in the development of “Seeing-at-a-Distance” (a/k/a “Tele-Vision”), some of them you’ve probably heard of such as Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, but there were many others whose names have been lost to history (i.e. Charles Francis Jenkins and John Logie Baird). Although David Sarnoff’s contribution was not technical, it was critical in that it was his vision of television’s potential (and his willingness to sacrifice millions of RCA dollars in pursuit of that vision) that would, ultimately, make the modern television industry a practical reality.

In its formative years, television - a derivative of radio, was seeking a path-of-least-resistance to commercial acceptance. By the mid-1920s, it seemed “Mechanical Television,” whereby a motor-driven spinning scanning disk formed images, was the answer. But there were those who realized the limitations of mechanical television and, instead, pursued an electronic solution, building upon the work of those who came before them. This would lead to the development and acceptance, by 1932, of “Electronic Television” as “the way forward.” Delayed by WWII, after the war monochrome (black-and-white) television would develop both technically and commercially into the fledgling industry David Sarnoff had foreseen. By the mid-1950s, the focus was on Chroma (color) television and, by the mid-1960s, color television had come-of-age. In the ensuing years, the “Holy Grail” would be “Mural TV” (flat-screen). With major advances in electronic technology, that too was made manifest.

In the immediate postwar years, the television industry came-of-age, albeit in fits and starts. What would define the era most would be “The Color Fight,” between CBS and NBC (the latter backed by RCA). Aside from color quality, the main issue was “compatibility.” CBS’ system was a throwback to the days of mechanical television, with a spinning color wheel providing the color images on the screen. Although the image was superior to electronic color images, at the time, it had several drawbacks. One was the noise the motor generated and another was that the spinning color wheel limited screen size. As far as NBC/RCA was concerned, the deal-breaker was the CBS system’s “incompatibility,” which would not allow the millions of black-and-white television sets in use in America to view CBS’ color telecasts in B&W. On the other hand, electronic color systems were compatible, allowing color broadcasts to be viewed in B&W on existing B&W TV sets. In the fall of 1950, to the surprise of many, the FCC chose CBS’ system. This decision did not go over well with the television industry, with many manufacturers refusing to make receiver sets for the CBS system. For the general public, it was a non-starter for the most part since color TV had a bad reputation for quality, reliability and cost. By the mid-1950s, RCA had improved electronic television and by 1965, color televisions were commonplace in American homes.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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