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Picture This: D-Day for DTV

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer

A new era in broadcast television history.


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D-Day DTV

What do Jan. 1, 1954, and Feb. 17, 2009, have in common? One is and the other presumably will become among the most important dates in television history, from a technology standpoint anyway, aside from the launch of broadcast television itself. Feb. 17, 2009, is, of course, the date the FCC has designated for the national transition to digital TV (DTV). Jan. 1, 1954, is often set forth as the birth of color TV.

Simplistically, each represents the dawn of a new era of broadcast technology, and they both stand as placeholders for what was/hopefully will be a dramatic change in how viewers experience television. And both sought/seek to enhance the viewing experience and, thus, the home-theater experience in their respective eras.

On Jan. 1, 1954, NBC — then owned by RCA — launched the first national color television broadcast “In Living Color,” as the slogan would soon come to boast. It was a live broadcast of the annual Tournament of Roses parade, a spectacle that's still televised each year for its colorful splendor. Awkwardly, in 1954, very few people saw it.

At the time, only Admiral (the same manufacturer that is now best known for dishwashers and other appliances sold at the Home Depot) had a color TV set actually available for purchase. Although that model C1617A (oddly, given the model number, a 15in. display) only reached the market two days earlier on Dec. 30, 1953, and sales were anything but robust for the $1,175 TV that cost roughly the same as a new car at the time.

However, RCA was driving the technology. RCA didn't hit the market with a color TV set until nearly four months later, but it did have a very small number of prototype color TVs set up at special screenings that were able to tune into the parade broadcast. Interestingly, in a March 11, 2004, “Facts for Features” press release, the U.S. Census Bureau indirectly cited March 25, 1954, as the dawn on the color TV era. That was when RCA began initial production of the CT-100 at its plant in Bloomington, Ind. — RCA's first marketable color TV set and what would become the poster child for early switch to color. The CT-100 would begin shipping the following month for $1,000.

GROWING PAINS

The idea of broadcasting color signals didn't begin in 1954 and was actually in development for several years previously, with competing technologies vying for how to do it. In fact, the FCC initially endorsed a different technology from CBS three years earlier, only to rescind that endorsement two years later after CBS testified that it was no longer pursuing the technology. The problem for CBS' technology — unlike that of RCA, which would become the color standard for the next five decades — was that it was not backward-compatible to existing black-and-white broadcast.

Demand was high for test screenings of CBS' technology as early as 1950 — first in Washington, D.C., then New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities. But the interest did not translate into sales on sets that were both expensive and had, at the time, very little on-air programming to display. Early adopters generally had an hour per week of color.



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