A LOT Of Interesting History, in case you have not read this!
My Conversation With Dr. Joe Flaherty
Senior Vice President of Technology at CBS
There are few that have seen more television history than Joe Flaherty. There are fewer still that have made as much television history! I will not try and cover all that here, but will instead bring to light some interesting background surrounding several major events in CBS and broadcast history. As I try and boil down over an hour of conversation, I may do some skipping around from topic to topic, and our fist topic is the backstory on Norelco.
According to Joe, “If CBS is the Tiffany network, the BBC is the Gold network”. Although CBS had a couple of hundred engineers in research and development, the BBC had three times that many. In the early 60s, Dr. Flaherty, with a degree in physics was already moving up the ladder and was sent to England to see what he could learn form the BBC about some new black and white cameras they were using.
They were Phillips cameras and had this new Plumbicon tube in them that made great pictures. While there, he called Phillips and they sent a plane for him. He went to the plant in Holland and while there, asked if the Plumbicon would work for color. They had not given it much thought, but after that visit, they did. The result was the PC 60. In early 1964, Joe went back to Holland to take a look. There were problems with the red channel registration on those early PC 60s, but Joe was impressed and bought all 25 of them. Unfortunately, the plant in Eindhoven could only make 25 a year, so he bought a years worth of production. Soon after, Phillips set up shop in New York and began making the PC 70 there and at a much faster clip. CBS had ordered the first 75 and delivery began in 1965.
This was a busy period for Joe and CBS. In 1952, CBS bought a dairy depot from Sheffield Farms and had used it mostly for scenery storage, but with the studios at Grand Central Terminal getting cramped, and wanting to consolidated some of the many broadcast theaters throughout Manhattan, a change was needed. William Paley put Joe in charge of converting the building to the CBS Broadcast Center. By 63, some of the TV studios were up and running and master control moved from Grand Central in late 64 completing the move. With his intimate understanding of the Norelco color regime which was to come, he was the perfect man for the job.
Although the RCA TK10s and TK30 came long before Joe got to CBS in 1956, I did ask him about the unique striped band around the top of most of the cameras. For a long time, no one knew or could say why they were there. A few years back, Pete Fasciano, who developed the Avid editing system, was helping me with the art work for my TK11, which I dressed as a CBS network camera. When laying our the black horizontal stripes at the top and bottom and the alternating grey and white vertical bars, Pete realized this was actually a grey scale test pattern. I told Joe the story, he laughed and confirmed our theory. The amplitude was adjusted using the black and white bars and the frequency adjusted using the grey bars.
Speaking of grey…now we know why all the CBS equipment was painted ‘navy grey’. Joe could not remember the name, but one of the early chief engineers for the television network was an former admiral in the Navy. You can see where this is headed can’t you? Yes, it was his idea to paint all the equipment ‘navy grey’ so it would all match. This started in the mid 50s. Many theories have abounded, like ‘eye acuity’ and more, but…
By the way, one of the financial considerations involved in management signing off on the 100 camera Norelco purchase involved man power. For many years, CBS upper management referred to the RCA color systems as ‘NSCT’ systems, which stood for ‘Never The Same Color Twice’. For network quality, the RCA TK41s and color telecine chains needed one video man to shade each camera and chain. It was thought that with the Norelco cameras, one man could shade 6 cameras at a time. I’m not sure how that worked out.
William Paley would ask Joe to lunch about 4 or 5 times a year. Each meeting, Paley would ask “What are we not doing that we should be doing?” That’s a great question for a CEO to ask and Joe always had to do his homework before each meeting. One of those big ideas was digital and HDTV, which we’ll get to soon, but first, let’s go back to the early 60s and another of Joe’s big ideas…ENG cameras.
Joe said one of the great things about CBS news was, “They were always willing to try something that almost worked.” This is where the ENG cameras come in. Even before CBS became involved with Ikegami in 1962, they had built a couple of ENG cameras in house. Last month, we had trouble identifying a CBS ENG camera at a Gemini space launch…I’m betting that was one of the CBS/Ikegami custom built cameras.
CBS News wanted to go with ENG cameras but there were still a lot of kinks to be worked out with the cameras and with a mobile video tape recorder. In the early 60s, Joe began spending time in Japan where CBS had an engineering office. He worked with Ikegami on the cameras, and soon after with Sony on the VTR. To test this all out, the CBS owned station in St. Louis, KMOX became ground zero for ENG production. The confidential agreements between CBS and Ikegami and Sony paid off and long before the RCA TK76 came out in 1976, CBS was using custom made, Ikegami ENG cameras. As is noted in his bios, Joe was the real pioneering power in the field of ENG.
He is also called ‘The Father of HDTV’ and it’s true. NHK in Japan had come up with the idea and Joe was there collaborating with them in 1971. There are many online articles about his many contributions and I’ll let you Google those, but here is an interesting backstory of one of the fist demonstrations.
Francis Ford Coppola was there and told Joe that, in his opinion, HDTV was better than 35mm film prints. The 35mm negatives were better than early HD, but when prints are made for distribution, the resolution and colors break down. Among the early problems was the difficulty in seeing the HD broadcast signal as the early HD receivers were not up to par yet. This is reminds me of the problems at RCA in the early days of color. They had to build a monitor as good as the camera to see what they had.
Jumping to one more quick item, I had long wondered which CBS studio had the Dumont cameras. As it turns out, 4 studios had them…Studios 53, 54, 55 and 56 at Liederkrantz Hall were all Dumont equipped. Oh yes, and Joe is the only man to have ever redone The Ed Sullivan Theater twice! Once in 1965 for color, and once again when David Letterman came to CBS.
I’ll wrap this up by telling you what Joe is working on now…3D production! In his 80s and still going strong, I can only wish him more continued success and my thanks for his efforts that have affected so many in so many ways!