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It’s Color’s 50th. Doesn’t Anybody Care?

Did I miss the big celebration at CES? Did I fail to stop by the celebratory Pavilion? Or was this something the industry, in all the excitement over digital technology, failed to notice?

What I’m talking about is the 50th anniversary this year of the introduction by RCA of color TV. You remember color TV don’t you? It was that oddball product RCA was developing at a time CBS was wowing the FCC with its field sequential (read color wheel) system that was adopted as the industry standard — even though it was not compatible with the millions of black-and-white sets already on the market.

Because of criticism over its two basic faults, incompatibility and the need for a spinning wheel, the FCC ended up replacing it with one recommended by the National TV Systems Committee, an RCA black-and-white-compatible system dubbed NTSC. RCA, the only set manufacturer that owned a TV network, promptly began color broadcasting on its own stations and helped its affiliates financially to expand into color.

But other set makers were in no rush to jump into color production, nor were the other two broadcast networks particularly interested. After all, in 1954 there were more than 30 million black-and-white TV homes, with sales running 6 million to 7 million units a year, and no screaming consumer demand for ultra-expensive color TV sets.

(If that somehow sounds familiar, look at the state of HD today. Compared to analog color, TV sales are minimal and program quantity is no more than so-so, and that’s with set-makers, broadcasters, cable companies and satellite providers all providing support.)

RCA single-handedly dragged the rest of the industry kicking and screaming into color. In the start-up years it spent millions on ads, promotions and payoffs to distributors, retailers and floor salesmen to bring more color into U.S. homes. And sales weren’t easy for a system some wags dubbed “Never Twice the Same Color.”

Only 5,000 sets were sold in 1954, and it took six years before annual sales hit the 100,000 mark and cumulative sales totaled 500,000. But then things began to pick up. In 1962, color sets in use topped one million, and the first million-set year came just two years later. Even so, it wasn’t until 1972 that unit sales of color finally exceeded sales of black-and-white TVs.

A major boost for color came from two unrelated sources. One was Disney’s shift of its show from ABC to NBC where it launched “The Wonderful World of Color.” The other was the demand from advertisers that their commercials be shown in color.

So why no celebration this year? Thomson did talk about color’s 50th in a late March RCA product sell-a-thon on QVC, and it has some other low-key plans. But nothing like the kind of massive promotions RCA was known for, which in truth might not be meaningful in today’s very changed market.

Milestone products in RCA’s history, including some of the first color models, are on display at Thomson’s CE headquarters in Indianapolis. But the company is in the process of leasing much of the once-crowded building to outsiders, and there is speculation headquarters will be moved and the building sold at some point after in-house TV manufacturing is halted. The issue then would be the disposition of that RCA product collection.

This opens the issue of this industry’s lack of any kind of CE museum, a place to house historic products of all brands that now are sitting in attics and garages, including mine, waiting to be donated. Such a facility also would house research and educational materials.

We would of course look to the Consumer Electronics Association to begin doing what it should have been doing all along, and that’s to start such a permanent collection. And if developing the housing would be too great a task, a good alternative might be to financially assist some other organization, such as the Smithsonian, to assume the job. It’s never too early to start, and it would be good to begin the effort while many of the pioneering engineers and marketers are still around.