The Visualist Blog

Great Moments in Visual Computing – Lessons to Learn from the Launch of Broadcast Color

It’s been 60 years since the birth of color television and that has me thinking about the interesting, chaotic and competitive history associated with launching a major new visual technology into the mass market. As a futurist and entrepreneur, I often look to the past for clues about how new technologies will be created, commercialized, and ultimately adopted into our daily lives. The story of television, and color television as a standard are particularly interesting. I don’t have the space to recount it in detail, but I encourage readers to take a look at Sava Jacobson’s account of CBS and Color Television at the David Sarnoff Online Library. Jacobson was an engineer in the middle of the battle between CBS and RCA to launch and then own the color television market.

In the past, I’ve taught a few courses that focus on the historical and social impact of major information technologies (including robotics, computer vision, and artificial intelligence) and had cause to dig into the historical development of television.

Here are some of the lessons I have taken away, that other entrepreneurs may find interesting:

1. The first to invent is often not the first to market: The first color broadcast television technology was developed by Vladimir Zworykin while he was working at Westinghouse R&D. As early as 1928 he received a patent for the color CRT. The work was a great step forward in display technology but it was too dim and difficult to maintain and fairly expensive. As a result, the initial invention was subsumed by RCA in an acquisition (guess that isn’t a bad result), but didn’t see the light of day for a long time to come.

2. Standards are important: This is somewhat obvious, but when technology meets mass market and, in particular, is to become part of our public infrastructure, accepted standards (whether they are official or de facto) help accelerate adoption. Broadcast color was held up until the FCC decided to promote a specific version of color that, in fact, defined fairly narrowly the manufacturing approach to both capture and generate a color image. I am part of a standards working group right now that is looking to define a common denominator format for multi-display calibration and have found the process both interesting and informative. (A topic I’ll have to talk about more in a future blog post.)

3. Marketing can influence engineering in unpredictable ways: CBS saw the potential increase in revenue that color advertising could bring as part of its programming and it attempted to generate consumer demand for color televisions by launching a marketing campaign that went so far as to imply a conspiracy between some of the large companies (read RCA) and the FCC that were keeping the technology of color from the public. The real intent of the campaign was to spur RCA to utilize its own engineering and development teams to define and implement a color standard. CBS was not looking to spend capital and R&D resources to bring a color television to market, but they did have their engineers work on developing a technology to put standards-setting pressure on RCA and the FCC. When the result was proposed by CBS to the FCC, fully expecting it to be rejected and thus inviting a new standard from RCA, the FCC surprisingly didn’t reject the standard and then CBS was on the hook to continue to develop, support, and even look for distribution partners for what it had proposed. This is an interesting lesson for emerging technology companies. It’s generally understood that an innovative engineering effort will produce results that must be folded into the marketing plan, however, likewise, creative marketing campaigns can wind up spurring new resource-intensive engineering initiatives. This is more than “be careful what you wish for” but a deep reason for a company strategy that tightly links for engineering and marketing.

In terms of wide-spread adoption of a better solution, we were lucky that the color standards battle eventually did awaken the sleeping giant of RCA who eventually created the NTSC (but that’s another story).

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