The Color Revolution: Television In The Sixties


Color television had its beginnings in the late 1940s alongside black and white television. It was not a commercially viable until the early 1950s. At that time, two competing color mechanisms were being championed separately by CBS and RCA (which at the time was affiliated with NBC). Eventually, CBS dropped their own color technology, which was incompatible with existing black and white sets. During the early 1960s color television grew at an amazing pace, especially on NBC, culminating in the color revolution of 1965.

Color’s Early Years: The 1950s

Although experiments with color television had coincided with the development of commercial black and white television, it was not until the 1950s that attempts were made to successfully launch color television. On January 12th, 1950, the general public was introduced to color television for the very first time when CBS demonstrated its “field sequential” color system on eight television sets in the Walker Building, in Washington [1]. Faye Emerson was the main attraction in the demonstration, which had been ordered by the F.C.C.

The first commercial color broadcast took place at 4:35PM on Monday, June 25th, 1951, when CBS offered an hour-long program entitled “Premiere” to an ad-hoc network of five stations in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Among those participating in the program were Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, Robert Alda, Faye Emerson, William S. Paley and Frank Stanton (the latter two board chairman and president of CBS, respectively) [2].

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Thousands were able to watch the first color broadcast in auditoriums, department stores and hotels in the five cities, but the general public was left in the dark — literally. Because the CBS color system was incompatible with existing black and white television sets, for the hour the color special was on the air, viewers tuned to CBS in any of the five cities saw only a blank screen [3].

RCA demonstrated its “all-electronic” color system for the first time on October 9th, 1951. The test was also broadcast on WNBT, and because RCA’s system was compatible with existing black and white television sets, viewers were able to watch the demonstration (in black and white, of course) [4]. On October 16th, RCA sent a fifteen-minute color variety show to San Francisco and Los Angeles, the first transcontinental color transmission. However, word of the test was withheld until early December on orders from AT&T [5].

On October 25th, manufacturing of color television was put on hold at the request of Defense Mobilizer Charles E. Wilson and the National Production Authority due to scarcity of metals and the conflict in Korea [6]. The ban was lifted on March 27th, 1953 [7]. And on December 17th, the FCC approved color specifications from the National Television System Committee (NTSC) for a color system compatible with existing black and white sets [8]. Color television was officially here to stay.

Color Adoption Slow

For a variety of reasons, including a lack of adequate production facilities for color television sets, the expense involved in converting existing television stations to color transmissions, and the cost of color sets for the general public, the adoption of color television was slow. During the first six months of 1954, fewer than 8,500 color television sets were manufactured in the United States [9]. And for those households that owned a color set, only a small percentage of network broadcasts were even in color. During the entire 1954-1955 television season, for example, CBS only made nineteen color broadcasts [10].

By 1958, there were an estimated 350,000 color sets in the United States, the bulk of which were manufactured by RCA [11]. That number had jumped to 500,000 by early 1960 [12]. The more color sets in use, the more potential eyeballs for color programming — and more importantly, from the advertiser’s point of view, color commercials. Still, the only network actively pushing color programming was NBC, which had 179 affiliates broadcasting in color by February of 1961. NBC “color days,” which started in November of 1960, saw the bulk of an entire day’s worth of programming broadcast in color [13].

An April 1961 editorial in Television magazine entitled “The Time Has Come for Togetherness on Color” noted that in the seven years since the FCC approved color standards, the “black-and-white television system [...] has passed the peak of its growth.” Color, on the other hand, “is still in the egg, and only skillful and expensive handling will get it out of the egg and on its feet.” The editorial called for “color activity at both the transmitting and receiving ends. People won’t buy color sets to see a majority of programs in the same shades of gray the old table top model in the corner delivers” [14].

However, even as NBC was increasing its color output, CBS was placing the impetus in the hands of the advertiser. In 1963, the network was broadcasting in color only if an advertiser would help pay for the added cost [15].

The Color Breakthrough

Two years later, another editorial in Television magazine declared that “the surge of interest in color in the past six months marks September 1965 as the date of the long-awaited color breakthrough” [16]. What led to this surge in interest? The battle for ratings. A preliminary study released in March of 1965 by ARB (and paid for by all three networks) led NBC to announce that its color programming would give it a 1.4 ratings-point advantage over ABC and CBS [17]. The study compared 4,600 color homes with 4,600 black-and-white homes. ABC and CBS cried foul, arguing that NBC had not checked the data.

According to ARB, the report was rushed to the networks before a final check could be performed because the networks could not wait. NBC acknowledged that there were some errors but insisted they were not significant [18]. In any event, the thought of NBC enjoying any sort of lead in the ratings simply because its programming was in color provided the impetus the other networks needed to jump headfirst into color broadcasting.

NBC planned to broadcast the vast majority of its primetime programming — all but two shows — in color at the start of the 1965-1966 season. Only Convoy (because of black and white stock footage) and I Dream of Jeannie (due to the cost of expensive special effects) would be aired in black and white [19]. Initially, both ABC and CBS planned to broadcast only a fraction of their schedules in color: ABC six and a half weekly hours and CBS only three programs per week [20], [21].

In May, CBS had upped its color quota to 28%, representing nine programs, including Lassie, My Favorite Martian, The Danny Kaye Show and Gilligan’s Island [22]. As for ABC, by adding The King Family and The Hollywood Palace to its color slate, the network hoped to have one-third of its schedule in color by September [23].

By June, the count stood at 50% for CBS and 33% for ABC and both networks claimed they would be all-color for the 1966-1967 season [24]. Color was on its way!

Color Households On The Rise

If 1965 was the watershed moment for color broadcasting, there was still the small problem of the viewing public not having color television sets. According to NBC, there were only 2,860,000 color households in the United States as of January 1st, 1965 (though that was up from 1,620,000 on January 1st, 1964) [25]. By July 1st, the number stood at 3,600,000 and on October 1st it was at 4,450,000 color sets [26], [27]. NBC’s figure for January 1st, 1966 stood at 5,220,000, an 85% gain over the January 1st, 1965 number but still only 9.7% of all television households [28].

Here are some additional figures, all from NBC’s quarterly color estimates:

Date Color Households % of All Households
January 1st, 1967 [29] 9,510,000  
January 1st, 1968 [30] 14,130,000 Roughly 25%
January 1st, 1969 [31] 19,200,000 Roughly 33%
April 1st, 1969 [32] 20,560,000  
October 1st, 1970 [33] 26,200,000  
July 1st, 1971 [34] 29,700,000 Roughly 48%

From Black & White to Color

Programs that had started prior to the 1965-1966 season, or premiered in black-and-white during it, were forced to convert to color at the start of the 1966-1967 season, when all three networks were broadcasting their entire prime time line-ups in color, aside from news specials and films originally shot in black-and-white (much of the daytime programming on ABC and CBS was still in black-and-white) [35].

Shows that had to convert from black-and-white to color included, among others: The Wild, Wild West on CBS, one season in black-and-white (1965-1966) and three seasons in color (1966-1969); Gilligan’s Island on CBS, one season in black-and-white (1964-1965) and two seasons in color (1965-1967); The Andy Griffith Show on CBS, five seasons in black-and-white (1960-1965) and three seasons in color (1965-1968); Twelve O’Clock High on ABC, two seasons in black-and-white (1964-1966) and one season in color (1966-1967); I Dream of Jeannie on NBC, one season in black-and-white (1965-1966) and four seasons in color (1966-1970); and Bewitched on ABC, two seasons in black-and-white (1964-1966) and six seasons in color (1966-1972).

Switching to color wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Jack Chertok, producer of My Favorite Martian, told Broadcasting magazine in August of 1965 that there would be problems with some of the special effects used in the series: “Many of them depend on wires which we’ve kept hidden from viewers by using black wires against a black background. Now we’ll have to use colors matching the colored backgrounds. It will be harder but it’s not at all impossible” [36].

For programs that were in color the networks went to great lengths to insure viewers were aware of the vibrant entertainment they could be watching. Shows that had formerly been broadcast in black & white were now promoted as “In Color!” and promotional spots often made mention of the color status.

All of NBC’s promotional spots for the new fall season, used during the summer of 1965, were in color, while CBS reserved color only for those programs which would be broadcast in color [37].

After The Color Dam Burst

In January 1966, some 70% of the combined prime time programming from the three networks was in color; broken down, almost 100% of NBC’s schedule was in color, 51% of CBS’s schedule and 49% of ABC’s schedule [38]. NBC became the first all-color network when daytime game show Concentration switched to color on November 7th, 1966 [39]. In January of 1968, TVB found that households with color television sets were watching between 40 and 70 more minutes of television on a daily basis than households with black-and-white sets [40].

The rush to color began in earnest prior to the start of the 1965-1966 season and for the most part was completed by the time the 1966-1967 season rolled around. It was left to viewers to catch up with the networks and purchase color television sets in order or be stuck watching in crummy old black-and-white.

Works Cited:

1 “Public Sees Color Television for the First Time; Demonstration Is Ordered by the F.C.C.” New York Times. 13 Jan. 1950: 30.
2 Adams, Val. “Color TV is Here.” New York Times. 24 Jun. 1951: 85.
3 “Commercial Color TV To Have Its ‘Premiere’ Over CBS Monday.” Wall Street Journal. 22 Jun. 1951: 14.
4 “R.C.A. Color Video Shown to Public.” New York Times. 10 Oct. 1951: 21.
5 “Nation-Wide Test of Color TV Held.” New York Times. 7 Dec. 1951: 49.
6 “Color TV.” Wall Street Journal. 26 Oct. 1951: 3.
7 “Color Television.” Wall Street Journal. 27 Mar. 1953: 2.
8 Gould, Jack. “Compatible Color Approved For TV.” New York Times. 18 Dec. 1953: 1.
9 “Television in Review.” New York Times. 11 Aug. 1954: 33.
10 “C.B.S. to Increase Color Shows to 73.” New York Times. 7 Sep. 1955: 63.
11 Zipser, Alfred R. “Color TV Ascends at Westinghouse.” New York Times. 24 Feb. 1958: 29.
12 “R.C.A. Plans to Double Output of Color TV Sets, Sarnoff Says.” New York Times. 18 Feb. 1960: 45.
13 Williamson, George E. “Sales, Output of Color TV Sets Increase; Black-and-White Sets Continue to Lag.” Wall Street Journal. 1 Feb. 1961: 7.
14 “Editorial: The Time has Come for Togetherness on Color.” Television. Apr. 1961: 120.
15 “Policy on Color TV Is Outlined by C.B.S.” New York Times. 11 May 1963: 51.
16 “The Season When Color Came Out of the Egg.” Television. Sep. 1965: 72.
17 “Pay-off for NBC color next season?” Broadcasting. 1 Mar. 1965: 32.
18 Ibid.
19 Adams, Val. “N.B.C. Will Boost Use of TV Color.” New York Times. 9 Mar. 1965: 71.
20 Ibid.
21 Adams, Val. “C.B.S.-Owned Stations to Show Films in Color Starting in Fall.” New York Times. 12 Mar. 1965: 67.
22 “9 CBS-TV fall shows in color.” Broadcasting. 10 May 1965: 63-64.
23 “ABC adds two more to fall color lineup.” Broadcasting. 10 May 1965: 72.
24 “All-color TV only one year away?” Broadcasting. 21 Jun. 1965: 27-29.
25 “How soon will color dominate TV?” Broadcasting. 18 Jan. 1965: 31-34.
26 “Color TV sets up 26% over Jan. 1 figures.” Broadcasting. 9 Aug. 1965: 52.
27 “Color TV’s in use up 90% in 13 months.” Broadcasting. 15 Nov. 1965: 91.
28 “Over 5 million color homes, according to NBC.” Broadcasting. 7 Feb. 1966: 50.
29 “Color sets up 82%.” Broadcasting. 13 Feb. 1967: 58.
30 “25% have color TV.” Broadcasting. 26 Feb. 1968: 57.
31 “19.2 million color-TV homes.” Broadcasting. 27 Jan. 1969: 99.
32 “Color homes: 20.5 million.” Broadcasting. 5 May 1969: 67.
33 “Color climbs.” Broadcasting. 26 Oct. 1970: 4.
34 “Color it color.” Broadcasting. 26 Jul. 1971: 7.
35 Gowran, Clay. “Color TV bigger! better! brighter!” Chicago Tribune. 13 Nov. 1966: X1.
36 “The big switch to color television.” Broadcasting. 9 Aug. 1965: 54-56.
37 “Hoopla begins for fall TV season.” Broadcasting. 26 Jul. 1965: 82.
38 “Color on the networks: well on the way to 100%.” Broadcasting. 3 Jan. 1966: 75-80.
39 “Full color on networks seems certain in 1967.” Broadcasting. 2 Jan. 1967: 84-86.
40 “Color homes push TV viewing to record high.” Broadcasting. 15 Jan. 1968: 62.

Originally February 15th, 2005
Last Updated December 22nd, 2013

6 Comments

  • The Mothers-in-law DVD says:

    Great article.

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Because of Bill {“Mr. CBS”} Paley’s rivalry with “General” David Sarnoff of RCA (who owned NBC), and his impression that he was going to be damned if he’d let “The General” sell more RCA color TV sets if CBS increased their schedule of color programming, he declared that NO color telecasts would be scheduled on CBS after 1959. And he meant it- while NBC telecast weekly color series on a limited basis until 1965, CBS did not. This did not stop Lucille Ball from filming “THE LUCY SHOW” in color from season two onward, in the fall of 1963- even though CBS didn’t “officially” telecast the show in color until the fall of 1965. On the other hand, by refusing to allow Joey Bishop to continue filiming his sitcom in color after he moved from NBC to CBS in the fall of 1964, that killed any chance of selling his show in syndication after it ended in 1965 (a mix of black-and-white and color episodes were NOT what local stations were interested in). Finally, some CBS executives convinced Paley to forget his rivalry with Sarnoff and think about the future…which was going to be all-color, and that CBS would be “left behind” if they didn’t start scheduling at least PART of their prime-time schedule in color. Paley agreed to set aside his differences with “The General”, and CBS programmed about half of their prime-time lineup in color for the 1965-’66 season, going to 100% color [with the other networks] the following fall. Daytime, however, took about another four years to completely “convert” to all-color series [this happened when the network ended their daytime repeats of "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW" in the summer of '69].

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    The NBC “peacock” identification bumper exhibited above, which appeared before the start of virtually every color program on the network, is the one that aired on the network from 1962 through 1970 [Mel Brandt is the NBC announcer delivering the disclaimer]. A shorter five-second version was also seen from 1969 through ’71.

    Incidentally, creator/producer Sidney Sheldon intended to film “I DREAM OF JEANNIE” in color from the beginning, but Screen Gems refused to allow him to do so. When he offered to pay the extra $400 per episode to defray the cost of filming in color, Screen Gems executive Jerry Hyams told him, “Sidney, don’t throw your money away”. Sheldon, in his autobiography ‘The Other Side Of Me”, claimed the first season was filmed in black and white not because of the potential extra cost- HE believed the studio didn’t think the series would last a full season. It did, and they finally allowed him to film two color episodes at the end of season one as a “test” to see how the show would look in color. Those were “held” until broadcast in season two, as the series “converted” to full color in the fall of 1966 [new sets, new makeup and costumes for Barbara Eden, new special effects].

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    …and the artwork seen at the beginning of the “CAPTAIN NICE” promo, which aired towards the end of the first week of January 1967 (promoting the show’s January 9th premiere), was drawn by famed comic book artist Jack Kirby.

  • Jeff Missinne says:

    I can remember as a kid seeing two other early versions of the ABC color logo with the same animation but different music themes. (One may have been slightly longer.) Can you find them?

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