TV’s shift to color took time to focus

Visual changeover hiccupped its way in stages over a decade

The past is a funny thing: It tends to get simplified over time — perhaps never more so than when the subject is technological change.

Take the arrival of what was once called “tint TV.”

Like the current fits-and-starts bedeviling the arrival of digital TV, color hiccupped its way onto the entertainment scene in bewildering stages over a decade.

The changeover from a B&W visual world involved not only scientific and engineering breakthroughs but also regulatory issues, market forces, consumer demand and creative choices. The resulting problems didn’t all get worked out at once, and they didn’t all elicit equal enthusiasm or insight from Variety writers.

Among the crucial moments was the decision by the FCC in December 1953 in favor of RCA’s so-called dot sequential system for color as opposed to CBS’ spinning disk system. In retrospect, it was a turning point, though Variety dealt with the subject matter-of-factly.

For starters, no one was making the sets needed to receive a color signal, and no station had converted its equipment to transmit such signals. A front-page story in 1953 opined that “chromatic sets” would cost three to four times what traditional TVs cost and would take several years to make a dent in the market. (As it turned out, it took even longer.)

What the paper did track methodically were the first shows — all from RCA subsidiary NBC, natch — which got the “rainbow spectrum tint.”

Just like the early-adapters who quickly took to digital cameras in the mid-’90s, Peacock producers eagerly experimented with the color palette — even though practically no one could see any of these tentative red, blue and green hues.

Among the first tinted shows were specials like the Rose Parade and the yuletide mainstay “Amahl and the Night Visitors” as well as “The Dinah Shore Show” and “The Amateur Hour.”

A reviewer said of this last: “Seldom before has a tinted-up product left such an impact on an audience. (Sponsor) Pet Milk can take a bow as one of the pioneers in advancing the cause of cherry pie in all its brilliant red-hued splendor!”

In 1955, “Howdy Doody” became the first kidshow to regularly broadcast in color.

Said Variety: “Not only do the cameras have their work cut out in reproducing flesh tones on live actors, but there’s the puppets as well. … It’s wrong to say that it doesn’t matter too much since the brats won’t know the difference.”

Reviewer George Rosen concluded that “the crew hasn’t mastered it completely, but the lessons learned will be invaluable when color exposure means big audiences.”

Flash forward to 1958, and the RCA-NBC brigade had taken their color crusade to Europe. They unveiled “operation tint” at the Brussels Expo that year, and the Europeans, per Variety, were “literally eating it up.”

“Whatever the deterring factors holding back tint TV’s advance, it’s inevitable that 5-10 years hence color will be the thing. General S. (meaning David Sarnoff) is making sure the RCA label and performance get in there first.”

Already that year, the Peacock was offering parts of its fall primetime sked in color — Steve Allen, Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford all got the treatment. Variety began labeling its reviews of tinted shows with the word “color.”

Fast forward to 1960, where a Variety item suggested local stations were beginning to buy syndicated fare that had been tinted.

“Color is a definite plus in some markets, with a number of advertisers getting their commercials on the color bandwagon,” the paper noted.

Also that season, sophomore “oater” “Bonanza” went to color, becoming the first regularly scheduled primetime Western to do so.

Most folks do think of 1964 as the crucial date when NBC put out its entire primetime schedule in living color (CBS followed the next year, and ABC the next), but perhaps the achievement had come in such increments that the crowning moment didn’t seem so noteworthy.

In Variety, there was nary a word. The emphasis in September 1964 was on the glut of Westerns that had ridden their way onto the skeds.