Monday, 7 November 2016
50 Years Ago Today NBC Went All Colour
For NBC the conversion to an all colour schedule was no simple victory over its competitors, but the end result of what had been a long fought battle with its old rival CBS. It was on July 3 1928 that John Logie Baird demonstrated the first ever colour television transmission in London. In the United States in 1929 Bell Laboratories demonstrated colour television in June 1929. It would not be until after World War II that the development of colour television would really take off in the United States. While various companies developed their own colour systems, the competition would ultimately come down to systems developed by CBS and RCA (the parent company of NBC).
CBS was actually the first of the two companies to develop a colour system. Unfortunately for CBS, its system was incompatible with the black-and-white sets of the early Fifties. The system ultimately developed by RCA was compatible with the black-and-white sets of the time. While CBS's system had been favoured early on, it was then the RCA colour system that ultimately won in 1953. As NBC was not only owned by the company that developed the American colour system, but a company that manufactured television sets, it should perhaps not be surprising that NBC took the lead in colour programming.
Indeed, NBC was the only American broadcast network to air programmes in colour during the 1953-1954 season. On November 22 1953 an edition of The Colgate Comedy Hour became the first colour television broadcast in the NTSC colour system. Later that season, on January 1 1954, NBC aired the Tournament of Roses Parade in colour. It was on January 5 1955 that NBC debuted the first regularly scheduled, colour TV show, Norby. Norby was a short-lived sitcom starring David Wayne as the title character, the vice president of a small town bank. It was also in 1955 that NBC's popular children's show, Howdy Doody, made the switch to colour.
From the mid-Fifties into the mid-Sixties NBC gradually increased its colour programming. The adventure series Northwest Passage was aired in colour for its only season (1958-1959). Much more successful was the Western Bonanza. Debuting in 1959, it proved to be one of the longest running and highest rated shows of the Sixties. It aired in colour from the beginning. By the 1965-1966 season NBC aired only two shows in black-and-white in its prime time line-up. The short lived World War II drama Convoy had to be shot in black-and-white because of its use of black-and-white, archive footage. The classic sitcom I Dream of Jeannie was shot in black and white in part because of its special effects, but also largely due to the fact that NBC executives had little faith in the show. As it turned out I Dream of Jeannie became the last prime time show regularly aired in black-and-white on NBC. It also defied NBC executives' expectations and ran for five seasons, not to mention a highly successful run as a syndicated rerun. With the 1966-1967 season NBC's entire line-up was in colour.
As to why CBS and ABC were not as quick to jump on the colour television bandwagon, much of it probably had to do with the fact that ownership of colour television sets was very low from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties. In 1964, eleven years after RCA's colour system had become the industry standard, only 3.1% of all American households owned a colour television set. As to why so few households owned colour TV sets, there can be no doubt it was due to their sheer cost. In 1954 a RCA colour set cost $1000, roughly the same amount as some cars sold during the era. Prices for colour sets would drop from the Fifties into the Sixties, although they were still somewhat expensive. In 1962 a colour TV set cost about $400, which would be about $3198 today.
Fortunately by the mid-Sixties colour sets had become somewhat more affordable. It was in 1966 that for the first time ever colour television sets surpassed black-and-white sets in sales, with 5.8 million sets sold. With colour sets more affordable than they had been, ownership of colour sets increased steadily from the Sixties into the Seventies. In 1970 39.3% of all homes owned colour television sets. By 1972 the majority of American homes had colour sets, a full 52.6%. By 1978 the ownership of colour TV sets was up to 78%.
While only a few households owned colour sets in 1966, NBC was then wise to switch to an all colour line-up that year. The year 1966 was the beginning of a dramatic increase in the ownership of colour TV sets in the United States that would continue well into the Seventies. It should be little wonder that the other networks were quick to follow in NBC's footsteps. By December 1967 the entire schedules of all three broadcast networks were entirely in colour.