The Story Behind The CBS & RCA/NBC Color Feud

The Story Behind The CBS & RCA/NBC Color Feud

These screen shots are from a color special that aired June 21, 1951 when CBS embarked on a four and an half month test of their Field Sequential System. The last commercial CBS Color System broadcast was the North Carolina-Maryland football game on October 20, 1951 and was in fact, the first college football game done in color. On June 25, 1951 regularly scheduled commercial colorcasts began on CBS on a five-station East Coast network. More than 10.5 million monochrome sets in the U-S, were blind to these telecasts. The CBS colorcasts were stillborn…. The RCA delaying tactic you’ll read about below had been successfully fatal to the CBS Color System. CBS had first broadcast its Field Sequential Color System as early as August 28, 1940. Their 1949 Color System was the third field sequential approach to be proposed to the FCC for adoption. They had suggested that their field sequential standards be adopted in 1941 and 1946. At those earlier times, with few black and white receivers in the hands of the public, the adoption of the CBS system might have been feasible. Remember, their system used spinning red, blue and green discs behind the camera lens and in front of the home receiver’s picture tube.

At the conclusion of the color hearings in 1950, there was much pressure by the color television proponents for the FCC to immediately adopt a color standard. On September 1, 1950, the FCC issued its First Report on Color Television Issues (Public Notice 50-1064) in which it deferred the adoption of a standard. The FCC in its October 11, 1950 Second Report on Color Television Issues (Public Notice 50-1224), formally adopted the CBS system as the USA standard for color television. RCA, on October 17. 1950, brought suit against the FCC in the Federal District Court in Chicago to halt the start of CBS colorcasts. After the court upheld the FCC order, RCA appealed to the Supreme Court which, on May 28, 1951, affirmed the lower court ruling in favor of CBS. RCA effectively delayed the initiation of the CBS system, allowing the continued sale of even more black and white sets which could not receive the CBS signals.

The FCC reasoned that if manufacturers would build black and white receivers that could handle both monochrome and CBS scanning standards, time could be allowed for the development of an acceptable compatible system. If the set makers could not provide this “bracket standard” reception capability, then the FCC would be forced to adopt the CBS system immediately to avert the continually growing compatibility problem. The FCC reasoned that, with the 5-6 million annual receiver sales rate, within one year 40 percent of the receivers in use could receive the CBS broadcasts.

Of course, the manufacturing industry refused, when faced with adding an additional increment to their receiver sales cost within what they thought was an impossible timetable. With most of the manufacturing industry against adoption of the field sequential system, CBS was forced to purchase Hytron Radio and Electronics Corporation with its Air-King receiver manufacturing subsidiary. The acquisition was done, according to Frank Stanton, President of CBS, “to assure at least some source for color receivers to the public”. On September 20, 1951, production began of the first (and only) commercial color television set – the CBS-Columbia Model 12CC2. Sales of the set began by Gimbels and Davega in New York for $499.95, According to Allen B. DuMont, 200 of these sets were shipped and I00 were sold

Viewer and advertising industry interest with the CBS system was disappointing. No sponsors were found as the color broadcast schedule increased from 4 1/2 hours for the week of June 21, 7 1/2 hours for the week of September 24, and 12 hours for the week of October 15. Actually, CBS did not fully commit to their system as colorcast were only scheduled in the evening before prime time telecasts. In less than a month after sales of this first receiver first began, Charles E. Wilson of the Defense, Production Administration asked CBS to suspend production of color receivers, “to conserve materials for defense.” (Korean War) This, according to Allan B. DuMont was, “a move to take Columbia off the hook.” CBS announced that it would stop colorcasts and recalled and destroyed the sold color sets. Of political interest was that monochrome television receiver production was not affected.

Two years later, during a Congressional hearing on March 25, 1953, CBS announced that it had no plans to resume its color system. The NPA lifted its ban on color receiver manufacturing the next day! It was now the obligation of the television industry to band together to devise an acceptable compatible color television standard. RCA’s Dot Sequential System won and this story is why there has been “bad blood” between CBS and RCA/NBC from that point on. Thanks to our friend Ed Reitan for the story.


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