The early stages of color television experimentation in America overlap the technological development of monochromatic television. Color television was demonstrated by John Baird as early as 1928, and a year later by Bell Telephone Laboratories. Experimental color broadcasting was initiated in 1940, when the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) publicly demonstrated a field sequential color television broadcasting system. This system employed successive fields scanned one at a time in one of the three primary colors; red, blue, or green. On the receiver end, a mechanical color wheel was used to reconstitute the primary colors in sequence to enable reproduction of the colors in the original scene. In their 1941 report confirming the National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) monochromatic standards, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) noted the potential benefits of the CBS color system but concurred with the NTSC assessment that color television required further testing before it could be standardized.

Further refinement of color television was temporarily suspended during World War II. After the war, work on the development of color TV resumed, and engineers were able to design a system that would operate within the 6 MHz channel allocation that had been established for black and white service. In a hearing which began 26 September 1949, and lasted for 62 days, CBS petitioned the FCC for commercialization of their 6 MHz, 405 line, 144 fields per second field sequential color system. Due to the higher scanning rate, such a system was not compatible with the existing monochromatic standard.

The economic costs of adopting an incompatible system were a major factor in the FCC deliberations. If adopted, it appeared that consumers would carry the cost of modifying the existing two million monochrome receivers to follow the higher field-sequential scanning rates and reproduce color signal transmissions in monochrome. The projected costs of this modification varied, with a low figure of about $25. In addition, it was also argued that when broadcasters elected to begin color service, they would lose that portion of the audience had not yet modified their monochrome receivers.

At the hearings, work on several experimental electronic color systems designed to be compatible with the existing monochrome system was presented to the commission. Color Television, Incorporated (CTI) demonstrated their line sequential color system which assigned the color portion of the signal to the successive lines of the image. In the first field, the uppermost line was scanned in green, the next line in blue, the next in red, and so on until the first field was complete. The second field was scanned in a similar manner, and the combination of the two fields produced a complete picture in color. The system operated at 525 lines, and 60 fields a second, corresponding to the existing monochrome service. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) demonstrated its dot sequential color system in which color is assigned to successive picture elements or dots of the image. With this system, each line of any field is composed of dots in the three primary colors. The scanning system for this color design, (525/60), was also identical to the existing monochrome standard. Both the CTI and RCA color system were formally proposed to the commission as potential standards. In addition to these proposals, preliminary development of several other color systems were also presented. To many of the industry witnesses appearing before the commission, the demonstrations and discussions indicated that a satisfactory compatible system could be developed in a reasonable period of time and they urged that a decision regarding color be postponed.

Examining the various proposed color systems, the FCC determined that the shortcomings of the compatible systems were fundamental and noted that if a viable alternative compatible system could not be developed, and the field-sequential color system was eventually adopted, the costs of modifying an even greater number of monochrome receivers would be prohibitive, denying the public of color service altogether. The commission therefore felt that it was unwise to delay the decision and on 10 October 1950, decided that the adoption of the color field-sequential system proposed by CBS was in the public interest. RCA appealed this decision, all the way to the Supreme Court, but the commission's actions were upheld. The CBS station in New York began regular color broadcasts on 25 June 1951. However, due to the military demands of the Korean War and the reallocation of resources towards the war effort, color receiver production could not be dramatically increased. On 19 October 1951, CBS discontinued color broadcasts due to the limited numbers of color receivers.


It was within this context that the NTSC, the entity which played a key role in setting monochrome standards in the United States, was reactivated to investigate the status of compatible color systems. On 21 July 1953, two years after their first meeting, the second NTSC approved a compatible all electronic color television dot sequential system (a modified version of RCA's system) and petitioned the FCC for adoption. On 17 December 1953 the FCC formally adopted a compatible color standard.

After the color standard was set in 1953, broadcasting stations were fairly quick to upgrade their transmission facilities to provide for color programming. Of the 158 stations operating in the top 40 cities, 106 had adopted color capabilities by 1957. Color programming offerings, however, remained fairly limited for quite some time. Although NBC increased its output of color programming to help its parent company, RCA, sell color receivers, the other major networks were not as supportive of this new innovation. As late as 1965, CBS provided only 800 hours of color programming the entire year and ABC only 600 hours. In addition to the limited programming, early sets were somewhat cumbersome to adjust for proper color reception, receiver prices remained fairly high, and manufacturers were reluctant to promote color receivers until the lucrative black and white market had been saturated. Consequently, consumers were fairly slow to adopt color technology. As of 1965, only 10% of U.S. homes had a color set. It was not until the late 1960s, over a decade after the standard was set, that color TV sales rose significantly. Today, approximately 95% of all US homes have color television.

-David F. Donnelly


Crane, Rhonda J. The Politics of International Standards: France and the Color TV War. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1979.

Fink, D. (ed.) Color Television Standards: Selected papers and records of the National Television System Committee New York, McGraw-Hill, 1955).

Radio Corporation of America. Petition of Radio Corporation of America and National Broadcasting Company, Inc. For Approval of Color Standards For the RCA Color Television System. New York: Federal Communicaitons Commission, 1953.

Rzeszewski, T. (ed.) Color Television (New York, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Press, 1983.

Sterling, C. & Kittross, J. Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting (Belmont, California, Wadsworth, 1990).


See also Television Technology