Color Comes to CBS

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

by Marcus McGraw

Who says that networks never broadcast anything new during the summer?

After all, it was in June of 1951 that CBS made history by presenting an hour long program with 16 stars that performed song, dance and comedy routines. Even better though, it was all in color.

Before that night, television was an entirely black and white medium. Viewers had heard that Lucille Ball's hair was red, but the color wasn't something they actually saw on their television sets. Now, television was truly changing colors.

Like the telephone before it and the Internet today, color television arrived gradually, with periodic technological introductions. That first color broadcast was hyped as a breakthrough in television technology, but there were flaws. The performers' faces were pasty. There was a mysterious red ring around Ed Sullivan's ear and viewers questioned the true tone of Faye Emerson's blond chignon. And then there was the even larger problem—no one had color televisions.

Very few people actually watched that first broadcast because their black and white sets could not receive the signal. To insure the event wasn't totally lost, CBS invited small audiences to watch the variety program in 35 different television studios across the east coast. Meanwhile, 1000 people had enough foresight to retrofit their sets to receive the signal.

For the record, CBS gets credit for the first color broadcast. However, a color system developed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was accepted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the industry standard.


The original CBS system used a motor-driven disk with segments in three primary colors – red, blue, and green—which rotated behind the camera lens, filtering the light from the subject so that the colors could pass through in succession. The receiving unit of this system formed monochrome (black-and-white) images through the usual cathode-ray tube, but a color wheel similar to the one used on the television camera transformed the images back to their original appearance.

It was rejected because it was not compatible with existing black and white televisions. Therefore, the millions of viewers with those older sets were unable to receive the signal.

While the CBS system was developed first, RCA officials claimed its system would be compatible with other televisions once complete. Therefore, those without adapters or color televisions could still view the programs.

In the RCA system, light from the subject is broken up into its three color components, which are simultaneously scanned. The signals corresponding to the red, green, and blue portions of the scanned elements are combined electronically. In the receiver the three color signals are separated for display.

The elements, or dots, on the picture tube screen are each subdivided into areas of red, green, and blue phosphor. Beams from three electron guns, modulated by the three color signals, scan the elements together in such a way that the beam from the gun using a given color signal strikes the phosphor of the same color.

After RCA finally demonstrated its system, the FCC declared it the industry standard. That decision was not a total loss for CBS, since its system was also well adapted for computer processing. In 1970 the same CBS system was used to broadcast the first color images from the moon.

And in 1951, in addition to providing viewers with an example of color, CBS learned that advertisers were becoming more interested in the color television market. More than a dozen companies paid close to $10,000 each to sponsor the program. CBS then expanded the number of color broadcasts.

By the end of the summer, viewers were watching the Braves beat the Dodgers 8–1 at Ebbets field. So what if the outfield resembled cheap jewelry? This was color.

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