The first color television sets were sold to the public in the United States in 1954. This marked a major advancement in television technology, as all TVs prior to this were black and white. The introduction of color TV sparked a revolution in the television industry and greatly increased consumer demand and interest in the medium. In this article, we will explore the history behind the first color TV sets, examine when they first went on sale, look at the companies and individuals involved in their development, and discuss the impact the advent of color TV had on the television industry and society.
The Development of Color Television
Experimentation with color television had been going on since the late 1920s, soon after black and white televisions were introduced commercially. However, it was not until the post-World War II era that serious progress began to be made. In 1946, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began field-testing color television systems, hoping to gain an advantage over rivals in the new technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved CBS’s mechanical spinning color wheel system as the first commercially viable color broadcasting system in 1950. However, it was quickly made obsolete by electronic color systems being developed by RCA and others.
Early Color Systems
Some key early color television systems included:
- John Logie Baird – Developed early mechanical color systems in 1928 and 1944.
- CBS – Their mechanical system involved a motorized color wheel that spun behind the black and white picture tube at high speed. Approved for commercial broadcasting in 1950.
- RCA – Worked on all-electronic color TV systems through the 1940s and 50s. RCA’s systems ultimately proved more practical than mechanical approaches.
- CT-100 – First successful all-electronic color TV developed by CBS and Hazard Reeves in 1951.
Despite this progress, it took years to develop color TV systems that were financially viable for broadcasters and affordable for consumers. A major breakthrough came in 1953 when the FCC approved RCA’s all-electronic color system as the new U.S. broadcasting standard, replacing CBS’s spinning wheel approach. This RCA system formed the basis for color TV technology that is still used today.
Early Consumer Color TVs
Once RCA’s color system was approved, television manufacturers raced to bring the first consumer color TV sets to market in 1954. Prices started very high at first but steadily declined as manufacturing efficiency improved. Some key facts:
- The first consumer color TV was the CT-100 by Westinghouse, selling for $1,295 (equivalent to over $12,000 today).
- Early color sets used a 15″ screen.
- By 1955, there were over 400,000 color TVs in use in the U.S.
- In 1956, there were over 150 different color TV models on the market.
- Prices dropped to under $500 (over $4,500 now) by the late 1950s.
While initially very expensive, color TV prices dropped steadily as manufacturing efficiency improved through the 1950s. This allowed color TV technology to spread through households in the U.S. and beyond.
The First Color Broadcasts
While commercial development was rapid in the early 1950s, broadcasting color TV signals took a bit longer to roll out to the public. Some key dates:
- June 25, 1951 – First commercial color broadcast in the U.S., a one-hour special titled Premiere transmitted by CBS from New York to four cities.
- January 1, 1954 – NBC makes the first national color broadcast of the Tournament of Roses Parade.
- May 1954 – NBC announces regular color programming (over 5 hours per week).
- September 1959 – NBC airs the first color western Bonanza, soon followed by other color programs.
- Mid 1960s – All three major U.S. networks are broadcasting full color prime time schedules.
While the first color sets were sold in 1954, color programming was very limited at first. It took close to a decade before all prime time programming was broadcast in color. This gradual rise allowed the public to steadily adopt color TVs while broadcasters updated their equipment and mastered the new technology.
Impact of Color Television
The introduction of color television transformed the TV industry and greatly accelerated the medium’s cultural influence. Some of the major impacts included:
- Made television even more attractive as an entertainment medium, increasing viewing time.
- Allowed TV to compete with color films and transformed how movies were presented on TV.
- Enabled TV broadcasters to attract larger audiences and advertisers with color programming.
- Accelerated the trend of families gathering around a TV set in the evenings.
- Increased demand for TVs and led to rapid development of the consumer electronics industry.
- Improved the TV viewing experience with more bright, vivid, and lifelike images.
- Enabled TV programming like sports, nature shows, and live events to be presented in a more engaging, dynamic way.
Within a decade, black and white TVs were relegated to the past. Color TV fueled rapid growth in broadcast television through the 1960s and beyond. The color revolution firmly established TV as the dominant mass communication medium of the late 20th century.
In summary, the first consumer color television sets went on sale in 1954 following decades of technical development and the adoption of RCA’s all-electronic color system. Despite high initial costs, over 400,000 color TVs were in use in American households by 1955. Color broadcasting progressed gradually through the 1950s as networks upgraded equipment and mastered the technology. While black and white TVs dominated through the mid-60s, the advent of color television transformed the industry and accelerated TV’s rise as the preeminent mass media medium. The vivid images and engaging content color TV enabled helped revolutionize entertainment, broadcasting, advertising, and American culture itself in the decades that followed.
|Year||Color TV Milestone|
|1928||John Logie Baird conducts early mechanical color TV experiments.|
|1940s-50s||RCA and others work on developing all-electronic color TV systems.|
|1950||FCC approves CBS’s mechanical color system for commercial broadcasting.|
|1953||FCC approves RCA’s all-electronic system as the new U.S. standard.|
|1954||The first consumer color sets go on sale, starting at $1,295.|
|June 1951||First commercial color broadcast by CBS.|
|January 1954||NBC makes first national color broadcast of Tournament of Roses Parade.|
|Mid 1960s||All major U.S. networks broadcasting prime time in color.|