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Postwar American Television

Color Television Standardization

This paper was presented at the 1950 National Electronics Conference, Chicago IL, Sept. 25, 26, and 27 by Wayne Coy, Chairman of the FCC. It explains the thinking of the FCC in deciding to adopt the CBS color system.

I understand that the emphasis of your Conference this year is on the progress that has been made in the radio field during the past quarter of a century. I think it is a good idea to stand off and get a 25-year perspective on your progress. In fact, I think so much of it that I have something here that may assist you in getting a perspective of 50 years and upwards. This is a commentary on the march of electronics, written well before the beginning of the Twentieth Century and published in the New York Times. The author is unknown.

A long haired scientific crank once lived on Murray Hill,

The march of science failed to march with his gigantic will.

And his very last invention, which increased his fame by half,

Was the poly-chromo-tele-panto-photo-phonograph.

This instrument so wonderful was fitted by degrees

With a sounding board, a diaphragm, and many rows of keys,

Besides electric wiring and complete harmonic staff

As a poly-chromo-tele-panto-photo-phonograph.

The professor called upon me and in manner shrewd and keen,

Explained the salient features of his intricate machine.

He seemed so much in earnest that I did not dare to laugh

At his poly-chromo-tele-panto-photo-phonograph.

We set to work next morning to test the new machine,

Having first secured connection with the cable submarine.

And we studied Western Europe from the Tiber to the Taff ,

Through his poly-chromo-tele-panto-photo-phonograph.

The moral of that is: never laugh at a long-haired scientific crank when he sits down to perform a miracle. Actually, the electronic scientists have made so much progress, and have established the validity of this moral so firmly that they have given the rest of us an inferiority complex. But your profession's ability is exceeded only by your humility. I note that despite your titanic achievements of the past 25 years and your present towering eminence in the public esteem and at a time when you might be forgiven for taking time out to pat yourself on the back, you have scheduled a speech for tomorrow noon entitled "Is the Engineer Slipping?"

Now let us roll back the years to 1925. That was truly a yeasty year in the history of radio. Twenty-one stations formed a hook-up to broadcast President Coolidge's inaugural. Many people were still making their own sets. The gooseneck speaker was on its way out. There was talk of a new type of set that would run off the house current without batteries. And the record discloses that there was no organized resistance to this improvement.

There were 5,000,000 sets in use. The average cost of a set had gone up from $16 in 1923 to $50 in 1924 and to $100 in 1925. In a very few years the cycle was completed and you could again buy a set for $16. There were some 600 stations on the air. Nearly 200 were built that year. There was a lot of sentiment for abolishing all of these and substituting 75 high-powered stations.

In that halcyon year, licenses were granted to all who applied. But Secretary Herbert Hoover of the Commerce Department warned the Fourth National Radio Conference in November of that year that there were no more channels. He proposed limiting the number of stations-traffic control by the Federal Government-and the selection of licensees in large part by the communities.

A past president of the Institute of Radio Engineers, L. H. Morecraft, called for regulation, too. He said: "The idea of a unified control of baseball by Judge Landis voluntarily investing in him autocratic power in regulating all disputes which may arise is a good example of an ingenious American plan to regulate and control a very difficult situation."

But it remained for that famous inventor, Charles Francis Jenkins, to contribute what I regard as the masterpiece of understatement, at least for the year 1925. He was quoted by the Scientific American of December of that year as saying that "there are many details yet to be worked out before movies can be sent through the air."
Of course, Jenkins was a Hoosier like myself and we Hoosiers have a reputation for understatement! Nevertheless, it was in June of that year that Jenkins had demonstrated a mechanical television scanning system employing a revolving disc, the rim of which was lined with small lenses. The next year he was sending weather maps to ships at sea.

But Jenkins had something else to say to his fellow electronic scientists in that dim and distant year of 1925. He said it was not necessary to have a fine research laboratory to perfect television. A woodshed, he said, is much better. "If you have a laboratory" he added, "and no woodshed where you can get off by yourself and think clearly, you are out of luck. If you have a woodshed, go to it, and good luck to you. If your woodshed is on a farm, the probability of correct thinking is greatly enhanced."

I can already detect the murmur suggesting that a woodshed be rented for the Federal Communications Commission-no, it is a separate woodshed for each member of the Commission.

The years since 1925 have been crowded ones for the electronics sciences. When chaos and congestion in the ether became completely intolerable, Congress set up the Radio Commission. Through boom and bust, radio continued to grow. In the Second World War, the electronic scientist performed such amazing exploits that he rose to a pinnacle of fame and power. The war-born developments loosed a flood tide of peace-time applications. Today we look to the electronic scientist not only as the man of the hour, but the man of the future. We look to you to lift our nation to new heights in peace and to guard us in war.

While radio science and the radio industry have been busy with new developments during this quarter of a century, the scope and complexity of your progress have continually confronted the government with new challenges. How a democracy can best utilize its processes of government to realize the maximum public service from our technological developments consistent with the maximum freedom of individual initiative is an increasingly crucial problem. And it will always be a crucial problem in a free society-a problem that demands the utmost patience, goodwill, and vision of all of us.

We need to do only a little summing up to appreciate how your activities during the past 25 years have magnified this problem of perfecting the teamwork of industry and government. Twenty-five years ago there were less than 600 radio stations on the air. Today that has more than tripled - 2,100 in operation. An entirely new and highly improved sound broadcasting system – FM - emerged and is represented by 700 stations. Television was a dream in 1925. Today we have more than 100 stations on the air-and would have many more were it not for a freeze on new construction. Instead of 5,000,000 receiving sets, we have 100,000,000, including 8,000,000 television sets.
Twenty-five years ago radio communication was confined to ships, amateurs and to a small degree to overseas telegraph. Today you can send a radiotelegram almost any place in the world. Overseas commercial radiotelephone service started in 1927. Today you can talk direct to the subscribers of telephones in 80 other countries. The police, fire departments, public utilities, railroads, truck and bus lines, aircraft, taxicabs, and countless other services are using radio. There are more than 1,200 shipboard radar installations. The Commission has issued 160,000 licenses for 40 classes of radio service.

The other day a scientist in Akron demonstrated how to find lost golf balls with a Geiger counter - this is truly the Electronic Age. And color television is about to mature as one of the electronic products of this age.

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss with you the Commission's color television decision of September 1. I feel sure that most, if not all of you, have spent many hours reading that report. If you read the report I know you spent hours doing it!

We labeled this report on color "First Report" because it is number 1 in a series of reports that we will issue on various phases of our television proceedings. These include, besides color, such issues as allocation principles, assignment of channels to specific communities, etc.

You undoubtedly all realize how this report on the color television issues fits into the picture of the television hearing. The hearing includes a general review of the status of the television service in both the VHF and UHF bands. As a result of our review of this service, we will amend the Commission's television rules and standards as they apply to the VHF stations to eliminate interference which we know now exists under the present VHF allocation plan, and to establish a sound foundation for the continued expansion of the VHF television service. Our review of the status of television in the UHF band will determine whether the Commission's proposal for commercial television service in the UHF should be adopted, and will try to establish a sound foundation for the commencement of that service.

These objectives are of utmost importance to the welfare of the television industry. Only by achieving a sound basis for VHF and UHF television can we insure that the American people will enjoy the best possible television service. Only by achieving these objectives can we insure that the television broadcasting and manufacturing industries can proceed to serve the people of the United States with assurance that no unnecessary technical obstacles will arise to plague them in the future.

As you know, it has long been plain that 12 VHF channels cannot accommodate a sufficient number of stations to make possible a nationwide, competitive television service. For this reason the Commission in July, 1949, proposed to open up 42 channels in the UHF band for commercial operation.

At this point it became obvious that the Commission and the industry had to face up to the question of color television. When in 1945 the Commission gave the go-ahead signal to post-war black and white television, only VHF allocations were involved. A large band of UHF frequencies was set aside for experimentation with higher definition monochrome television and also color. Again in 1947 when the Commission refused to adopt color standards on the basis of a 16-megacycle color system, black and white was permitted to proceed on VHF only. The UHF band was still preserved for future experimental work.

Following the 1947 decision, television started to grow by leaps and bounds. Not even the most optimistic were able to foresee the rapid strides the new industry was able to make. The result was that the 12 VHF channels became hopelessly inadequate to handle the demand that grew up-a demand that the Commission and the industry believed would take many more years to develop. It was thus imperative to find more channels for television stations. It was not possible to assign any more space in the VHF band since all VHF space was committed to other services, both government and non-government. The only place to pick up channels was the UHF band and the Commission in its July 1949, notice proposed to allocate a large portion of this band for commercial television. This action meant that the last portion of the spectrum where television could operate in the present state of the art was about to be carved up. It was television's last frontier.

Thus, if color television were to be given any chance of developing in the foreseeable future, it was apparent that this chance had to be given to it before the last spectrum space where it could operate was disposed of.

Many of you no doubt are asking the question which I have been asked privately but which has not been expressed publicly. My questioner asks-assuming that this proceeding represented the last chance for color for some time to come-what is so important about color that warrants injecting the issue at this time in such a way that it may cause serious disruption to a young and growing industry?

I am aware of the fact that there are those in the industry who sincerely feel that color is a "phony" issue. Let me assure you that, in the judgment of the Commission, there is nothing "phony" about the issue. Congress, through the Communications Act, commanded the Commission to "generally encourage the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest." Certainly, the Commission has encouraged such a development for the past several years. Having reached the point in the development of a television service where the UHF band of frequencies was needed to provide a basis for a nation-wide competitive service, we were at a cross-roads with respect to the past encouragement given to the development of color television. We could provide for color along with black and white in the VHF and UHF or we could provide for black and white service only in both bands. We were aware, and I am sure that you are aware, that the latter course might foreclose the opportunity for the development of color television in the foreseeable future.

Therefore, it seemed quite clear to us that the groundwork should be laid now for the joint use of both bands-VHF and UHF-for both black and white and color. Hard emphasis is given to this point by the extraordinary development of the monochrome service, there being almost 8,000,000 television receivers in the hands of the public at the present moment. If we did not now lay the groundwork for such joint use, it is obvious that when the Commission did get around to adopting a color system we might not be able to choose the best possible color system, but would as a practical measure have to consider only such systems as might be compatible with black and white television.

Now for the report itself. There were three color systems proposed to the Commission-one by Color Television, Inc., one by Radio Corporation of America, and the third by Columbia Broadcasting System. The first two systems are compatible systems, that is, present receivers without making any changes could receive a black and white picture from color transmission of such systems. The CBS system is not compatible. Some changes must be made in existing receivers in order to enable them to receive a black and white picture from CBS color broadcasts.

The Commission carefully analyzed the voluminous record of the hearing. We had to weigh testimony covering almost 10,000 pages of transcript and evidence that was submitted in 265 exhibits. We made detailed and specific findings concerning all three systems-findings approved by all seven members of the Commission. The care with which this work was done can best be indicated by the fact that while, as was to be expected, the particular result we reached was disappointing to some of the parties, there has been no intimation by anyone that the Commission's findings are not supported by the evidence in the record.

The Commission unanimously found that the CTI and RCA color systems were not suitable for adoption. I am not going to attempt to restate in detail at this time all of the reasons we set forth in the report for arriving at this determination. However, I shall mention two of the fundamental defects. In the first place, the Commission found that the quality of the color picture produced by the two systems was not at all satisfactory. In the case of the CTI system there is a serious line crawl or jitter and in the case of the RCA system there is a prominent dot structure and a marked loss of contrast. Moreover, the colors are not true in either system. This is particularly true of flesh tones. At none of the demonstrations did CTI or RCA correctly reproduce flesh tones. Since the purpose of the hearing was to pick a color television system, it is obvious that no serious consideration could be given to a system that failed to produce true colors.

In the second place, the equipment required for the CTI or RCA system appears too complex for normal use. This is true both for receivers in the home and studio equipment at the station. At the outset of its conclusions the Commission stated that a color system to be adopted must produce a satisfactory color picture, must use apparatus that is simple to operate in the home and is cheap enough to be purchased by the great mass of the American people. The Commission specifically rejected the notion that the backbone of television should be black and white with color television being available only to those who can afford to pay luxury prices. The Commission believes that any television structure must be so constructed that color television is available to all and not merely the rich. The Commission knows that color television receivers will cost more than present monochrome receivers but we expect the price levels to follow the pattern of the present receivers. As production increases to mass volume, prices will fall. At all of the demonstrations, CTI and RCA had trained operators at hand who worked assiduously before each demonstration to make sure that the equipment was adjusted in tip-top shape and who hovered over the equipment during each demonstration continuously making adjustments to insure optimum performance. Despite all of these efforts RCA and CTI were unable to maintain accurate registration and color control throughout the demonstrations. You can imagine what the situation would be like in the ordinary home where children or untrained adults had to operate such receivers.

The Commission, of course, recognizes that both the CTI and RCA systems were comparatively new systems and that the equipment that was demonstrated was not commercial-type equipment. However, an analysis of the two systems showed to the Commission's satisfaction that the defects were fundamental. The equipment is complex because by the nature of the systems, registration and color controls are extremely critical.

CTI and RCA thus did not meet the tests of simplicity and economy.

The conclusion appears to be inescapable that CTI and RCA devoted so much of their efforts to the compatibility part of their systems that they never succeeded in producing satisfactory color. The net effect from the adoption of either system by the Commission would be that the public would continue to receive black and white pictures. We did not believe that the public would buy receivers that would get the type of color pictures that RCA and CTT showed to the Commission.

For these reasons you can see that there was just no basis upon which the Commission could approve either the CTI or RCA system.

The CBS system did not labor under these handicaps. The quality of the color picture was of a high order. A wide variety of subject matter was displayed involving many different colors. Broadcasts were made from studios and from outdoors. In all instances color rendition was of a high quality. The equipment utilized was easy to operate. At not a single demonstration was there any evidence of mis-registration or inaccurate color.

The CBS system does have fewer lines per picture than the present system. However, the addition of color to the picture more than outweighs the reduction in lines so far as apparent definition is concerned. You only have to look at a scene in color and compare the same scene in black and white to be convinced that the addition of color increases several-fold the amount of information that can be transmitted by a picture.

True, a monochrome picture from color transmissions under CBS standards is not of the same good quality as monochrome pictures from transmissions under present television standards. But neither were the monochrome pictures from color transmissions under the RCA or CTI proposals. However, I regarded such pictures as satisfactory in the case of CBS and RCA and unsatisfactory in the case of CTI.

You have undoubtedly heard the CBS color system described as a mechanical system. This arises from the fact that a mechanical disc is used at the receiver to achieve color. The Commission pointed out in its report that the CBS system is not limited to the mechanical disc. A projection receiver was shown which did not require a disc. Also, if a direct view tri-color tube is successfully developed, all the expert witnesses agreed that it can be utilized on the CBS system.

You also have undoubtedly heard the CBS system described as an incompatible system. Indeed, most of the objections to the CBS system were based on this fact. All of the Commissioners agreed that it would be desirable to have a compatible color system if that were possible. However, the Commission was forced to conclude that no successful compatible color system had been demonstrated. Since existing receivers can be adapted to receive black and white pictures from CBS color transmissions at a reasonable price, the Commission felt that it was not fair to deprive 40,000,000 American families of the opportunity to have color simply because the owners of 7,000,000 or 8,000,000 sets might have to spend some money in adapting their present receivers.

All of the Commissioners are of the opinion that if a decision must be made now, the CBS color system would be adopted. However, five of the seven Commissioners are willing to postpone a decision, if certain conditions are met, in order to see a demonstration of a tri-color tube on the CBS system, to receive further evidence concerning horizontal interlace and long persistence phosphors, and to look into certain developments in so-called compatible color systems which have occurred since we closed the hearing record, to see if they meet the requirements of a color television system as set forth in the report.

You will note I said that five Commissioners are willing to postpone a decision if certain conditions are met. These conditions relate to the so-called bracket standards about which you have been hearing so much. Briefly speaking, so far as the color problem is concerned, the incorporation of bracket standards into television receivers would enable them to receive a black and white picture from present transmissions or CBS color transmissions. You can readily see that if receivers had such bracket standards, there would not be a compatibility problem so far as the three color systems are concerned. Note that this applies only to future receivers. If bracket standards are added to receivers henceforth manufactured, the compatibility problem would stop growing so far as the field sequential system, which has been described to the Commission, is concerned. The bracket standards would provide opportunity for certain changes in standards of a field sequential color system. The Commission could then proceed to consider the other matters which I have enumerated knowing that in the meantime it would not risk having the mere force of the obsolescence problem eliminate the only color system which has been successfully demonstrated.
The Commission has given the manufacturers until September 29, 1950, within which to tell the Commission whether they will manufacture receivers incorporating bracket standards. If we receive adequate assurances on that score we will postpone a color decision and look into the developments I have already referred to. If we do not receive such assurances, we will adopt a final decision and designate the CBS system as the standard color system.

The manufacturing industry is given a choice as to whether or not it will voluntarily adopt bracket standards at this time. We are making this choice available so that an opportunity may be presented to those people who have been coming to us after the record closed with stories of new compatible systems or improvements in compatible systems to show whether they can meet the requirements for a color television system as set forth in the report. And the opportunity for this choice is likewise available for those manufacturers who have urged compatibility to the Commission as the sole basis for adopting color television standards. Mr. William P. Mara of Bendix put this view very well in a recent statement attributed to him in the September 9th issue of "Television Digest". He said: "... while we did not endorse any of the various systems . . . we felt that solely on the basis of compatibility the RCA system should be adopted."

But you may ask why is it necessary for manufacturers to adopt bracket standards in the meantime? For, you may say, if a new compatible system is developed the brackets will have been unnecessary.

These are fair questions and I will give you frank answers. In the first place, no successful compatible color system has been demonstrated.

In the second place, the Commission recognizes that it is entirely too easy to invent a new compatible system every time the Commission appears to be ready to adopt an incompatible system. If a lengthy hearing is held each time, then the number of receivers in the hands of the public becomes so large that as a practical matter an incompatible system cannot be adopted.

In other words, if the Commission were to postpone making a decision on color at the present time, and proceed with a further hearing, without having assurances as to brackets being incorporated into receivers, we would be inviting a situation where, at the end of such a hearing, fundamental defects might still be present in the compatible system, but the incompatible system could not be adopted because the number of receivers in the hands of the public would have increased tremendously. We have a color system before us today-the CBS system-which all Commissioners feel is suitable for adoption. We all believe that color is an important improvement in broadcasting. We are willing to postpone adopting the CBS system for the time being the American people if the new or improved compatible systems should fail to meet the requirements of the Commission, as have all compatible systems in the past. We are unwilling to postpone adopting the CBS system if the manufacturers do not build receivers with bracket standards, for, in that event, we would be inviting the risk that if the compatible systems failed again, we would probably not be able to adopt the CBS system.

In the third place, two developments were demonstrated during the hearing that hold real promise for improving resolution in black and white pictures. These are horizontal interlace and long persistence phosphors. More work is needed before a final answer can be given concerning these techniques. If they are successful, a change in line or field scanning rate, or both, might be desirable in order to take advantage of the improvements. By building receivers with bracket standards at the present time we will not be confronted at a later date with the vexation of not being able to improve resolution in black and white pictures because so many sets would be outstanding and incapable of operating on the new standards.

These bracket standards are insurance that if the Commission postpones a color decision now, it will not be precluded from making color available to the American people. They are also insurance that if techniques presently being developed are successful in making better resolution possible in black and white pictures, the Commission will be able to make this improvement available to the American people.

Before leaving the subject of bracket standards, I want to talk a little bit about costs. It is to be expected that receivers with bracket standards will cost more than present receivers. The record in our hearing contains a poll of many manufacturers as to what the cost of adaptation to the CBS system would be. The cost for bracket standards should be of approximately the same order.

I would like to discuss for a bit more the subject of compatibility. The Commission’s notice scheduling the present hearing did not contain a requirement that a system must be compatible-that is, that receivers without any changes would be able to receive a black and white picture from color transmissions. The notice stipulated that color system to be eligible for consideration must be adaptable and convertible. By adaptability is meant that present receivers should be able to receive a black and white picture from color transmissions simply by making relatively minor modifications the receiver. By convertibility is meant that existing receivers should be able to receive color pictures from color transmissions simply by making relatively minor modifications.

CBS and RCA were the only proponents that demonstrated converted receivers. The RCA converter was demonstrated only once and was apparently withdrawn though the record is not absolutely clear on this point. It is clear from the record at CBS demonstrated the only practical converter. However, the question as to e convertibility of the RCA and CTI systems did not prevent the consideration of I the systems on their merits.
The Commission recognized in its report that if a satisfactory compatible color stem were available, it would certainly be desirable to adopt such a system. And I should like to emphasize this point. However, from what I have already said, you can see why we were unable to do this.

We recognize that the adoption of an incompatible system means certain transition problems. For the owners of the present receivers it means that if they do not buy an adapter, they will not be able to receive programs transmitted in color. As the number and quality of color programs grow, the owners of present receivers will either buy an adapter or turn their old set in for a new model which is a color receiver or at least has adaptability built into it.

For the broadcaster, the initial months of color broadcasting can be difficult. There will be comparatively few receivers that can tune in on his color programs. Of course, the adoption of bracket standards by manufacturers would make the broadcaster's task much simpler. For, if the Commission postpones a color decision upon receiving assurances from manufacturers that they will manufacture receivers with bracket standards, there will be no broadcasting of color programs except on an experimental basis. If, as a result of such postponement, a successful compatible color system should be developed, the broadcaster would have an audience that could receive his color broadcasts in black and white. However, if no compatible system succeeds, and the Commission adopts the incompatible CBS system, a portion-and a continuously growing portion-of the television audience will have receivers capable of receiving a black and white picture from the color broadcasts. The extent of this audience will depend on the rate of production that is achieved by manufacturers of bracket receivers. And each month that passes will increase the size of the audience that is available for color programs.

To sum up the color decision –

First, we have decided that color is an important improvement in broadcasting that, should be made available to the American people.

Second, we have decided that of the three color systems demonstrated to us, the two compatible systems-CTI and RCA-cannot be adopted because they do not reproduce a satisfactory color picture and because they do not meet the other minimum requirements for a color system prescribed by the Commission.

Third, the CBS color system, although incompatible, does meet the requirements for a color system prescribed by the Commission and could be adopted as standard.

Fourth, the Commission is willing to postpone adopting a final color decision now, and, among other matters, give the proponents of a compatible system another opportunity to show that they have a system that can satisfy the Commission's requirements, provided that the manufacturers will prevent the compatibility problem from increasing, by giving assurances that they will build their television receivers with brackets.

Fifth, and finally, if manufacturers do not give assurances that they will build television receivers with brackets, the Commission will adopt the CBS color system now, for, without the assurance of bracket receivers, the Commission would be inviting the risk that if the compatible systems failed again, it might no longer be possible to adopt a color system we know is satisfactory because the number of receivers in the hands of the public could have increased to a point where as a practical matter it would be extremely difficult to adopt an incompatible system.

Gentlemen, in closing, I would like to say that the Commission's long hearing on color television, our recent color decision and the other phases of the allocation problem still before us highlight in striking fashion the nation's dependence on you electronic scientists. We are in great debt to you for the long way you have brought us in the past quarter of a century. We look to you for ever-accelerating progress in the next quarter of a century.

The problems of today remind us that to realize your dreams and to apply your genius with maximum effect, you must have the fullest support that the electronics industry, our school systems and the government can muster. The field of fundamental research is not embroidery, is not a luxury. It is basic. It is a mighty arsenal of democracy for both war and peace. For the long haul of the future, we cannot rely on improvisation. We must have consistent year-in and year-out programs of fundamental research - programs that will be adequately financed to attract the finest talents in the nation. To do less is to short-change the future, is to frustrate our potentialities.

If such support for your efforts is forthcoming, those who meet here for the National Electronics Conference of 1975 will be able to look back upon a quarter of a century of progress that will dwarf the memorable achievements since 1925.

Courtesy of John Folsom