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For Color TV, A Long Innovative Road From Analog To Digital

While the industry moves its way through the years-long period of TV transition from analog to digital, one is reminded that analog color TV, for decades now the backbone of the consumer electronics business, didn’t have an easy time of it either.

While sales of at least 20 million direct-view color sets a year has been the standard for each of the last 17 years, it took nearly that long — 11 years to be specific — for the industry to experience its first year in which 1 million sets were sold.

There were good reasons for that. One is expense. Another is that the sets being sold just weren’t that reliable and the quality of the color picture was something less than spectacular.

Also during that stretch from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, the solid-state era had only just begun, and most TVs, and certainly all color models, used receiving tubes that heated up, changing picture values and causing parts to fail.

Further, turning the brightness up to the level at which people were watching black-and-white TV resulted in a washed-out color picture.

To compensate, manufacturers gave consumers a host of knobs for wide-ranging picture adjustments. The problem with that was that, like artists, normal people have different ideas of what makes for a pleasing color picture. So a visitor being given a demo by a new color TV-owning friend might come away with the impression that color wasn’t very good. None of this did much for boosting consumer demand.

A brilliant color engineering consultant and lecturer, Joe Roizen, always drew laughs and applause when he explained that the initials for our color system, NTSC, really stood for “Never Twice the Same Color,” instead of National TV Standards Committee.

Incidentally, he termed the French- and Russian-developed standard SECAM as being “Something Essentially Contrary to the American Method.”

By 1965 the most glaring problems with color TV had been resolved. Pricing was down to affordable levels; brightness had been enhanced; a variety of screen sizes were available; and reliability was much improved. But still something of a problem was that issue of color adjustment. And blame for some portion of that stemmed from the broadcasters themselves. And, remember, at the time, a remote was a little offered option, and then only provided on-off, and channel and audio up-down.

A neighbor who was a director at NBC told me that directors had a monitor they watched to make an adjustment to the outgoing color signal. But like all other members of the population, each one had an idea of what the color should be. When one director would replace another it was not uncommon for him to reach over and tweak the signal. When it was done in the middle of a program, viewers at home saw the change and a million or more had to get up and readjust their pictures. NBC, and presumably all other broadcasters, sent down an order that the color signal not be changed during a broadcast.

I believe the first company to tackle the picture quality issue at the TV set level was Hitachi, which introduced a model with two sets of controls. One was factory preset and non-adjustable by most consumers; the other was adjusted by the usual knobs up front. So if the kids tuned the picture totally out of whack, all that was needed to restore a viewable picture was to flick a switch to the preset controls.

This idea was picked up by several manufacturers. But Zenith made it even simpler. Zenith factory-adjusted the regular controls for an acceptable picture. Then it slipped on knobs, each of which had a short line on them. If the picture was misadjusted all that had to be done was to align all the knobs so that their lines pointed straight up, and the factory setting was restored.

Philco was first with an electronic solution, an automatic flesh-tone correction circuit (promoted as “Philco Gets the Faces Right, You do the Rest”). Much later GE and Panasonic introduced color models that used the color quality signal being transmitted by the networks to their affiliates to adjust their pictures. But by that time set quality was such that constant color adjustments by consumers were unnecessary and, if needed, could be done conveniently by remote control.

So now that we have NTSC color down to a near-perfect science, here are digital and progressive scan and surround sound and all those other whiz-bang features, giving consumers a whole lot more to think about when choosing their next color TV to buy.