Innovative Spirit

Color TV Transformed the Way Americans Saw the World, and the World Saw America

A historian of 20th century media argues that the technological innovation was the quintessential Cold War machine

At the start of the 1960s, color television was still a relatively novel technology. (Found Image Holdings / Corbis via Getty Images)
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In 1959, at the height of the space race, Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev stood together, surrounded by reporters, in the middle of RCA’s color television display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Nixon, speaking to Krushchev through a translator, pointed proudly to the television camera before them and addressed the technological competition between the two nations that the leaders had just been debating. “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us, for example, in the development of the thrusts of your rockets for the investigation of outer space,” he said. “There are some instances, for example color television, where we’re ahead of you.”

Comparing the significance of the invention of color television to the development of space rockets sounds ludicrous to us today, but color television was one of the most complex and transformative technological innovations of its time, symbolizing a unique and thoroughly modern form of seeing and representing. It was, in fact, often discussed by its proponents as an ideal form of American postwar consumer vision: a way of seeing the world (and all of its brightly hued goods) in a spectacular form of “living color.”

Color television was sold to viewers as a way to experience everything from sports and nature to musical theater in a more legible, realistic, captivating, and sensational way. Network executives pitched it to advertisers as a unique medium that would inspire attentiveness and emotional engagement in viewers, making them more likely to purchase advertised products, a growing myriad of consumer goods and appliances that were now available in a wider set of vibrant colors like turquoise and pink flamingo.

And, as much as rocket thrusters, the color TV was presented as a quintessentially Cold War machine. RCA President David Sarnoff, addressing President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the 1958 dedication of NBC’s all-color station in Washington, D.C., seemed to promise that color television was even an efficient political technology—an engine of detection, knowledge, and truth. Sarnoff proclaimed the RCA color camera before him was “relentless in its revelations.” In contrast to people in communist countries (who didn’t yet have color TV), Americans feared no revelations, he added, as “we want everyone in the world to see America in its true and natural colors… Here we do not seek to be anything other than what we are. And what we are is not hidden by curtains and what we say not hidden by censorship.”

Despite all of its advantages, however, it took a while for color TV to catch on. By the 1950s, black and white television sets had been on the market since the mid-1940s and were now affordable to most Americans. Even without vivid color, they had become deeply entwined with the growth of consumerism, the expansion of the suburbs, and the workings of the domestic life of the postwar middle-class nuclear family.

Interestingly, color television systems had been demonstrated as early as the 1920s, though the technology was refined in the late 1940s. It wasn’t initially used for entertainment, but as a tool for surgeons and medical students. Doctors had long relied on “wet clinics”—instructional surgeries performed in front of live audiences at medical meetings—to learn their craft. Medical educators had experimented with filming surgeries in monochrome television, but some doctors complained that the feeds were only useful for viewing procedures on cadavers, which were usually drained of color.

Color television, however, provided a more compelling, and efficient, replacement for wet clinics. Projected on large screens before huge medical convention audiences, surgeries cast on closed-circuit color television promised the best seat in the operating theater, providing better close-up views of the body and its interior than even the surgeon performing the operation saw. Color television let students and other viewers distinguish between organs and identify healthy tissue. What’s more, advocates said, the views it offered of the internal workings of the body were both highly detailed and multidimensional.

Peter Goldmark, the head of the CBS lab and one of the inventors of color television, noted that audiences at medical conventions responded strongly to the images produced by his system. “The operations were so realistic that some of the viewers, including doctors, fainted in front of the television screens,” he wrote in his 1973 autobiography. “We began to measure the impact of our television shows by the number of faintings we could count.” Goldmark championed his color system by not only asserting its ability to represent the real in true fidelity, but by claiming that the electronic color image of the surgery had even more psychological and visceral impact on viewers than watching it with their own eyes.

Color television patent.png
This system, patented by Vernon Landon and assigned to RCA, was the first to broadcast commercially in the United States. (U.S. Pat. No. 2,594,567)

Similar claims about the power and impact of the electronic color image carried over into its use in commercial broadcasting. Commercial color television systems were not approved by the FCC until the start of the 1950s, after consumers had already started purchasing black and white sets. Of the three television networks in the U.S., only NBC was invested in pushing color programming—its parent company, RCA, had developed the color system that eventually became the NTSC standard, so it stood to profit from color set sales. Full conversion of all three networks was not complete until the late 1960s.

But during that extended period of conversion and dissemination, network executives, publicists, advertising companies, inventors, and television manufacturers worked assiduously to promote color technology by reinforcing some of the same notions of its perceptual, aesthetic, and emotional functions that medical TV pioneers had noted. They were trying to convince consumers that the liveness and immediacy of television, combined with the unique visual properties of electronic color, would provide them with an expansive and revelatory view on the world that they had never experienced before. These beliefs then slipped into the descriptions of color television by commentators, critics, and journalists, further influencing the way that viewers made sense of their color viewing experience. By extension, they also cemented Americans’ positioning as good consumers—and as referenced by Sarnoff and Nixon—citizens open to the world and able to withstand revelation and scrutiny.

In the early 1960s, the particular psychological and visual attentiveness of color television viewers was explored in a study by researchers at the well-known Institute for Motivational Research, headed up by the era’s best-known consumer behavior analyst, Ernest Dichter, who combined Freudian analysis, observational methods, and interviews to get at the unconscious drivers of consumer behavior and decision-making. The resulting 157-page report, which was used by NBC to get sponsors on board with color, argued that color television gave viewers a reduced sense of psychological distance, while also increasing levels of emotional involvement, empathy, creativity, comprehension, sociality, and immediacy. Color TV could intensify a sense of realism while simultaneously stimulating “a world of fantasy.” Color was also found to be “symbolic of innovation, progress and modernity.” “Color,” the report concluded, “is symbolic of the better life.”

Ultimately, the ability to evoke strong feeling and capture attention was seen as a boon to sponsors willing to invest in color programming and commercials. Color, the thinking went, created a more receptive consumer for advertisers at a time when color had become essential to the design, economics, and planned obsolescence of goods and appliances. Car companies such as Chrysler—which sponsored NBC’s An Evening with Fred Astaire in 1958, the first prime-time program recorded live on color videotape—were some of the more enthusiastic color sponsors, finding it a good fit for the display of their ever-growing rainbow of car models.

Color television was more than just an addition to, or enhancement of, black and white television. In the postwar era, it represented the final step in the technological replication and extension of human sight: the enhancement of perception, the peak of consumer vision and display, as well as an idealized Cold War technology of truth and revelation. While color television now is simply television and the idea of a black-and-white set seems distant and quaint, there was a time in which color television was, to use a very contemporary expression, a disruptor. It not only altered the way in which commercial television was produced and received, it also claimed to shift the very way that Americans saw the world and understood their relationship to it.

Susan Murray is Associate Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. She is the author of Bright Signals: A History of Color Television.

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