June 25, 1951…America’s First Color Broadcasts Begin On CBS
Let me start with some things you probably never knew about this historic event.
To me, the first day and circumstances seem to foreshadow the overall outcome of this four month experiment. In April of ’51, CBS had just taken over the Peace Theater, at 109th Street and 5th Avenue, and in a few quick meetings, it was determined that this would become their Field Sequential color studio. It was big, and empty, but had no air conditioning. CBS called it Studio 57, and moved in five tons of equipment, but there was no time for anything else. As you will see in this 20 photo spread of the June 24 rehearsals, everyone was sweating badly, but the theater heat was the smaller of their problems.
That debut show broadcast on this day 65 years ago was simply titled “Premiere”, and it was the first commercial CBS Color program. It, was broadcast over a five station network from New York’s Studio 57, and although there were 10.5 million monochrome sets in U.S., none of them could see it because no Field Sequential sets were made until September of 1951, and less than a month later, production was ordered halted with the Korean War broke out.
Appearing on the debut show were Arthur Godfrey, Faye Emerson, Sam Levenson, Ed Sullivan, Gary Moore, Robert Alda, Isabel Bigley, Bil Baird Marionettes, Sol Hurok’s New York City Ballet arranged by George Balanchine, Patty Painter (the first “Miss Color Television”), FCC chairman Wayne Coy, CBS chairman William S. Paley, and CBS president Frank Stanton.
In a nutshell, even RCA could not get the CBS system to work without problems on the VHF frequencies…it needed UFH bandwidth to defeat the flicker of the spinning wheel. Part of the battle with RCA and the FCC over color was CBS’s Peter Goldmark’s insistence that the VHF band be abandoned for all color work, and that all black and white broadcasting should be abandoned too…in favor of the CBS Field Sequential system.
RCA was leading the way in black and white set manufacturing, and Philco and others were making a market there too, so the CBS push was not gaining any sympathy from the industry, or the FCC. As a matter of fact, the FCC said to CBS, if you are so sure your Field Sequential color system is the ultimate answer, why do you have so many applications for CBS owned VHF stations?
Having been asked, now CBS had to answer. It was an answer that cost them dearly too. In a show of support for Goldmark, CBS abandoned five VHF license requests in the top markets…markets they later entered, but at a high price, because they had to buy out the original licensee.
A lot of people lay blame at RCA’s feet for playing rough, but truth be told, CBS was just as guilty of a different sin, and that sin was mostly about slowing down television’s development in any way they could. CBS was not a manufacturer like RCA and others, and their participation in television depended on their ability to make money with their radio network.
The success of the 1948 political conventions on TV, which was mostly pooled, had demonstrated the power of the new visual media, and they didn’t want to get left behind in TV, but it was expensive and had to be developed in every way. In recent readings, I have learned that even the great CBS producer/director Worthington Minor (“Playhouse 90”, etc.), had come to understand that CBS was doing all it could to slow down TV.
In the color TV hearings at the FCC in early 1951, he basically said that, which earned him a broom closet office across from the 485 Madison Ave. HQ, until the end of the CBS color project was halted at the start of the Korean War in October, 1951.
Leading up to the July 1, 1941 anniversary of the start of commercial television in the U.S., I’ll be adding some new information on the CBS Grand Central studios history. Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee