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Coloring our world

Fifty years ago today, the first color TV sets were made. And Americans' bond with the tube became almost unbreakable.

By Associated Press
Published March 25, 2004

WASHINGTON - Doreen Golanoski remembers being a little girl when her family's television set delivered something new and amazing to her eyes: a burst of color on the screen. Finally, she could see The Jetsons in vivid greens, blues and reds.

"You can't really appreciate color television unless you know what it was like to watch black-and-white," said Golanoski, who has five sets in her Nanticoke, Pa., home, on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of color television.

On March 25, 1954, Radio Corporation of America began manufacturing color television sets at its Bloomington, Ind., plant. It built 5,000 sets with 12-inch screens, known as the model CT-100 color receiver. They sold for $1,000 each, an astronomical price in those days (and even today).

They didn't get much use that year, because color telecasts were rare. But the American love affair with the tube had taken a leap forward into the hues of real life.

Bringing color to the home screen was no easy feat. It occupied scientists throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s at RCA laboratories in Princeton, N.J. Their eventual concoction sounded like something out of a science fiction novel: the three-beam shadow mask tube.

The struggle for a clear and true color picture was hardly over. RCA continually tweaked the technology and soon replaced the original combination of phosphate, silicate and sulfide phosphors with a more efficient group made up entirely of sulfides.

The results: higher light output and better color balance. Even so, generations of viewers would fiddle with mysterious buttons to try to make sickly green or rashy red faces the color of flesh.

After an experimental start by CBS, NBC, a subsidiary of RCA, developed and promoted color television in the marketplace. Ten years later, NBC was broadcasting as many as 40 hours a week in color.

The first 5,000 color sets were gobbled up by consumers. In 1967, color outsold black-and-white for the first time, with almost 5.6-million sets sold, and in 1973, more than half of all households had color.

Many people remember the day they tuned in their first splash of color.

"Everyone was piling into my mother's room" to watch the new color set there, said Jermaine Johnson, 28, of Washington.

"I felt like we finally stepped up, we moved up a notch," he said. For him, it was 1987, well after color TV made its introduction.

Johnson and his wife have four televisions, two in regular use and two for when guests are over.

"I watch it until I fall asleep," he said.

U.S. households had 248-million TV sets in 2001, or 2.4 sets each on average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, citing the latest year measured.

The Consumer Electronics Association projects that more than 18-million color sets and about 150,000 black-and-white sets will be sold this year.

TV ownership blanketed the country as far back as 1960, when 87 percent of homes had one, according to the bureau. Now they are nearly universal, in more than 98 percent of homes.

People watch a ton of TV. Adults are projected to watch, on average, 1,669 hours of television in 2004, or roughly 70 days worth, according to census figures.

Frank Vespe, executive director of TV-Turnoff Network, a group that tries to get people to do just that, is not cheering color television's big anniversary.

"Television has supplanted just about every other leisure activity," he lamented.

[Last modified March 25, 2004, 01:05:44]

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