When Was Color TV Invented?

A couple in the 1960s looking at televisions

H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images

On June 25, 1951, CBS broadcast the very first commercial color TV program. Unfortunately, it nearly went unwatched since most people had only black-and-white televisions.

The Color TV War

In 1950, there were two companies vying to be the first to create color TVs—CBS and RCA. When the FCC tested the two systems, the CBS system was approved, while the RCA system failed to pass because of low picture quality.

With the approval from the FCC on October 11, 1950, CBS hoped that manufacturers would start producing their new color TVs only to find nearly all of them resisting production. The more CBS pushed for production, the more hostile the manufacturers became.

The CBS system was disliked for three reasons. First, it was considered too expensive to make. Second, the image flickered. Third, since it was incompatible with black-and-white sets, it would make the 8 million sets already owned by the public obsolete.

RCA, on the other hand, was working on a system that would be compatible with black-and-white sets, they just needed more time to perfect their rotating-disk technology. In an aggressive move, RCA sent out 25,000 letters to television dealers condemning any of them that might sell CBS's "incompatible, degraded" televisions. RCA also sued CBS, slowing down CBS's advancement in the sale of color TVs.

In the meantime, CBS started "Operation Rainbow," where it tried to popularize color television (preferably its own color televisions). The company placed color televisions in department stores and other places where large groups of people might gather. CBS also talked about manufacturing its own televisions, if it had to.

It was RCA, however, that ultimately won the color TV war. On December 17, 1953, RCA had improved its system enough to gain FCC approval. This RCA system taped a program in three colors (red, green, and blue) and then these were broadcast to television sets. RCA also managed to minimize the bandwidth needed to broadcast color programming.

To prevent black-and-white sets from becoming obsolete, adapters were created that could be attached to black-and-white sets to convert color programming into black and white. These adapters allowed black-and-white sets to stay usable for decades to come. 

The First Color TV Shows

This first color program was a variety show simply called, "Premiere." The show featured such celebrities as Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, Faye Emerson, Arthur Godfrey, Sam Levenson, Robert Alda, and Isabel Bigley—many of whom hosted their own shows in the 1950s.

"Premiere" aired from 4:35 to 5:34 p.m. but only reached four cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Although the colors were not quite true to life, the first program was a success.

Two days later, on June 27, 1951, CBS began airing the first regularly scheduled color television series, "The World Is Yours!" with Ivan T. Sanderson. Sanderson was a Scottish naturalist who had spent most of his life traveling the world and collecting animals; thus, the program featured Sanderson discussing artifacts and animals from his travels. "The World Is Yours!" aired on weeknights from 4:30 to 5 p.m.

On August 11, 1951, a month and a half after "The World Is Yours!" made its debut, CBS aired the first baseball game in color. The game was between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York: the Braves won, 8-4.

Sale of Color TVs

Despite these early successes with color programming, the adoption of color television was a slow one. It wasn't until the 1960s that the public began buying color TVs in earnest and in the 1970s, the American public finally started purchasing more color TV sets than black-and-white ones.

Interestingly, sales of new black-and-white TV sets lingered on even into the 1980s.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "When Was Color TV Invented?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/color-tv-invented-1779335. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). When Was Color TV Invented? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/color-tv-invented-1779335 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "When Was Color TV Invented?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/color-tv-invented-1779335 (accessed June 10, 2023).