What Did We See in Color TV?

For those seeking to break up with their phones, or just decrease their screen time, tech ethicist Tristan Harris recommends starting with a quick technological fix ...

For those seeking to break up with their phones, or just decrease their screen time, tech ethicist Tristan Harris recommends starting with a quick technological fix: switching the smart phone’s display to grayscale. With just a few clicks, it’s possible to transform a handheld, attention-zapping, colorful machine into a miniature black-and-white TV. I tried it myself a couple months ago but eventually had to go back to color. My phone—Instagram, especially—just wasn’t the same without it. The digital marketing experts and app developers are likely right: try as we may, there’s hopelessly little we humans can do to resist color’s appeal.

And yet, such a seemingly commonsense, industry-wide belief inevitably ignores important nuances in how color—electronic color, in particular—came to dominate our everyday lives. The ways we indulge in, make sense of, and resist our chromatic cravings remain deeply tied to our historical moment.

How much our historical context informs our perceptions of and beliefs about color is ably illustrated by Susan Murray’s award-winning book Bright Signals. Tracing the evolution of color television in America from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, the book successfully demonstrates how the medium reflected and refracted American social and political history, despite its initially halting, tentative development. Industry leaders, Murray shows, only progressively overcame regulators’, advertisers’, and the public’s initial resistance to color television as a finicky luxury.

The television industry’s strategy was twofold. First, manufacturers and regulators subjected electronic color to the same processes of measurement and standardization adopted in other industries (such as paints and plastics). Second, and more controversially, industry leaders actively promoted the medium as a new, more immersive, and emotionally engaging form of vision.

This is where Murray’s book gets really interesting, but also less definitive in its claims. Color television was more than simply a new and improved version of monochrome television, she maintains. In fact, according to Murray, the new technology paved the way for a collective recalibration of the limits, textures, flows, and essential affective qualities of visual perception.

The notion that color television endowed ordinary Americans with visual superpowers frequently popped up in early marketing materials. As Murray sees it, however, the idea was much more than mere marketing hype. Americans actually did come to see and experience the world differently, once they developed a taste for the intensified realism, emotional appeal, sense of immersion, and spectacle of color television.

In terms of providing readers with a comprehensive cultural history of color television, Bright Signals is a tour de force. But the argument the author makes about visuality, broadly defined, extends to a single technology an inordinate amount of power.

If Murray is right, and color television’s arrival ushered in a truly more spectacular and immersive way of seeing, how are we to account for the wide variety of more or less distracted viewing practices the medium elicited? An advertisement from the 1960s showing a woman preparing food while watching TV reminds us of a key difference between watching a movie in a theater and watching television: electronics manufacturers and broadcasters had little control over how color television was consumed in the home.1 Not everyone was mesmerized by the new medium. Indeed, even among contemporary media and color experts, who left written accounts of their experiences, opinions were quite split.

What’s more, color television, it’s important to remember, was a relative latecomer among color-image-making technologies. Much of what the medium’s early boosters said about its unique qualities—that color heightened the detail, depth, visual interest, and emotional appeal of television programming—had already been said before regarding, for example, color printing, photography, and film. So how can one really speak of color television generating a new, distinctly modern form of vision?

The sensual appeal of color did not become a central aspect of American consumer culture overnight. In February 1930, as new, brightly colored goods proliferated—everything from red beds to green-and-gold locomotives—Fortune Magazine announced the “Anglo-Saxon’s” long-awaited release “from chromatic inhibitions.”2 But despite the new hype, even then, America and the rest of the Western industrialized world had been awash in color for quite some time.

Between 1870 and 1913, the number of synthetic dyes increased from around 50 to 1,300.3 Writing in the early 1900s, the artist-turned-scientist Albert H. Munsell—who created the first color-standardization system (called the Munsell color-notation system) widely adopted in manufacturing and retail industries—was already protesting the rash of gaudy colors visible everywhere. He also resisted the ostensibly imprecise, illogical names commonly used to refer to them. “Without a measured and systematic notation,” he warned, “attempts to describe color harmony can only produce hazy generalities of little value in describing our sensations, and fail to express the essential differences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ color.”

So Fortune Magazine’s bold announcement decades later was not reacting to the sheer novelty or variety of colors visible in the marketplace. Instead, the magazine was celebrating the newfound reach of color into places where previously there had been none. Stoves, sinks, refrigerators, bathroom tiles, automobiles, and even brooms began to be sold in a range of hues.

Company executives placed significant hope in the power of brightly colored paints and dyes (as well as design more generally) to stimulate consumption. Advertisements in magazines, making the most of color photography and commercial printing technologies, touted the abundance, novelty, and varieties of color available.

This was not a repeat of the chromatic free-for-all of the last third of the 19th century, however. Behind the scenes, manufacturers put in place new mechanisms to streamline and regulate color, including notation systems and other newfangled devices designed to “measure” color with greater quantitative accuracy. The rainbow that would release the Anglo-Saxon from his “chromatic inhibitions” would be composed of standardized, mass-produced hues.

As Murray sees it, color television constitutes a key chapter in the history of vision.

While TV engineers, company executives, and advertisers feature prominently in Bright Signals, Murray’s central argument extends beyond the typical discipline-specific historical account, oriented exclusively to business and technology. The successful commercialization of color television coincided, she demonstrates, with a later postwar phase of the ongoing “color revolution” in American visual and material culture, during which the strategic deployment and standardization of color was expanded and intensified.

Color television, therefore, was part of a bigger cultural and commercial moment, when companies made and marketed new products in a widening array of hues—a messy, complicated process involving the participation of designers, chemical engineers, psychologists, and a new class of specialized “color experts” whose work it was to rein in potential chromatic excesses. As Regina Blaszczyk has shown, “The color revolution grew out of American industry’s drive for efficiency in design, production, and distribution.”4

Linking the history of color television to this longer history of Western chromophilia and chromophobia, Murray provides a new framework for understanding what might otherwise seem like electronic manufacturers’ overblown sense of confidence in color’s inevitability. By the same token, the more familiar, highly technical history of color-transmission standardization by the National Television System Committee (NTSC) and events connected to the infamous “color wars” of the 1940s and early ’50s, which pitted RCA/NBC against CBS, are productively recast as part of a broader history of American consumer culture.

It’s hardly a coincidence, Murray suggests, that the same era that gave Americans pastel-colored Tupperware and DayGlo laundry detergent boxes also produced a whole new color technology, allowing them to see and eventually reimagine the palette of increasingly standardized hues all around them.


Do Images Still Help Us See?

By John Miller

The history of color television has much to teach us about the histories of technology, business, race, and Cold War politics. But that is not all. As Murray sees it, color television also constitutes a key chapter in the history of vision.

For the author, color television was more than merely another product or visual medium. “Television is distinguished from other visual media, especially film,” she emphasizes, “by its claims to livenessimmediacy, and extension of vision. The notion of ‘seeing at a distance’—seeing through walls, through space and time, witnessing things as they happen elsewhere—has been the primary promise of television since the late nineteenth century.”5

The perception that television constituted a form of prosthetic sight—emblematized by the CBS logo of an eye, originally designed by creative director Bill Golden in the 1950s—resonates particularly strongly in the case of color television. Produced by way of transmitted light, as opposed to pigments and dyes, electronic color was also psychophysiological color—that is to say, color television more closely mirrored how the eye and mind naturally perceived color than did most other media.

Dating back to the mid-19th century, the trichromatic theory of color vision—with its triad of red, green, and blue primaries—was well established in scientific communities by the time color television came along. But only with the widespread commercialization of this new form of entertainment—equipped with CRT screens made up of tiny electroluminescent red, green, and blue phosphors—did scientists’ highly abstract, hard-to-grasp ideas take concrete, material form. Indeed, as Murray points out, the NTSC’s 1953 color standard, which established acceptable levels of color transmission for all television manufacturers, was directly derived from existing psychophysical research on how the brain and eye respond to visual stimuli.6

Never before had the fundamentally subjective nature of color vision been more readily apparent. Nor had the American public ever been more cognizant of the difference between the subtractive mixing of colored pigments and the additive mixing of colored light. As the advertising campaigns for broadcasting companies made clear, when it came to color television, the primaries were not blue, red, and yellow, as most had learned in school, but red, green, and blue.

Without a more explicit and sustained analysis of opposing opinions and perspectives, it’s hard to tell whether or not color television truly marked a turning point in the viewing experience.

Electronic color prompted viewers to look at, analyze, and—according to Murray, at least—reimagine “looking” itself. The evidence on this last count, however, is mixed.

Yes, some contemporaries were passionate supporters of color television. And not all were in the pockets of manufacturers and broadcast companies. For example, in his 1964 review of a pair of color documentaries, television critic Jack Gould expressed what appears to be a very genuine appreciation for the medium’s enhanced realism and stereoscopy. “The addition of color,” he observed, “imparted a vibrancy and dimension to the superb photography that left no doubt there is virtually a new medium of TV at hand. The delicacy of the shading and greater pictorial depth stemming from the contrast offered by various hues were integral parts of a more exciting process of communication.”

But not everyone was equally enchanted. Unlike other colors—seen in paintings and photographs or projected onto a movie screen—those produced by the television’s CRT screens were transmitted “directly into the eye,” noted a leading contemporary color expert, Faber Birren. Far from enhancing viewers’ experience, he remarked, this made the color images appear “filmy” and “ethereal.”7 Like Marshall McLuhan’s later characterization of television as an intrinsically “cool,” or low-definition, medium, Birren’s lackluster reaction contrasts sharply with those cited by Murray.

And herein lies the problem. Murray insists that early enthusiasts’ descriptions of the greater depth, detail, and emotional appeal of color television indicate a real shift in visual perception. “The question of color and the nature of its attendant affordances, conventions, limitations, and complications were unremitting and influenced not only the priorities and direction of the television industry but also the way that viewers understood themselves in relation to that industry and its technology,” she writes.

The arrival of color television, she furthermore underscores, prompted networks to invest in the production of new, more spectacular types of programming—such as musical specials as well as travel, art appreciation, and nature documentaries—that foregrounded electronic color’s supposedly unique characteristics. Yet without a more explicit and sustained analysis of opposing opinions and perspectives, it’s hard to tell whether or not color television truly marked a turning point in the viewing experience.8

But, for me, the principal drawback of Murray’s analysis of electronic color—in terms of verisimilitude, emotional intensity, heightened surveillance, and truth telling, as opposed to compromise and compression—isn’t that it ascribes too much power to advertisers’ rhetoric. Rather, it’s that it ascribes too much power to television itself.

A telling example: many of the images in Murray’s book are taken from the pages of magazines. Treating them, for the most part, as mere illustrations, the author misses an opportunity to analyze the convergence of electronic (televisual) and printed (magazine) color, and how the two media worked together to shape Americans’ way of seeing the postwar world and their place within it.

Many of the qualities she ascribes to color television—its power to grab viewers’ attention, make them feel more intensely, and make them spend more liberally—were also attributed to other color media. This is hardly surprising. Magazines and television were, after all, in direct competition for advertisers’ dollars.

Claims that images displayed in color appeared more truthful, more entertaining, or more artistic than monochrome versions can also be interpreted as meaning that television was becoming more like film or magazines. Such claims tell us nothing about the nature of visual perception per se. Unless, that is, one accepts that practically any change in the way television was produced, distributed, or looked necessarily constituted a “perceptual shift,” simply because of the medium’s so-called inherently “prosthetic” nature.

But what, then, about the advent of cable? Home video-recording systems? Or, more immediately, the constant toggling between color and monochrome programming typical in the early days of color television?

By the mid-1960s, all major networks had transitioned to color. Yet the percentage of American households that owned a color television set remained relatively low, only passing the 50 percent mark in the early 1970s. Murray is very explicit about color television’s slow, halting maturation. Focusing on the technological newcomer, however, she gets out of having to provide any real explanation for the longevity of monochrome.

According to a 1992 Associated Press article Murray cites in her conclusion, “All of the major retailers had stopped selling regular sized black and white sets by that time.” Still, miniature models remained widely available for purchase. Moreover, as the same article also notes, according to the Electronic Industries Association, about half of America’s then 94 million households “still [had] some kind of black-and-white set around.” Although Murray’s argument doesn’t hinge on there being a specific percentage of Americans watching Bonanza or Gilligan’s Island in color, the numbers seem to raise some important questions.

Inspired by Guy Debord’s theorization of the fundamentally “spectacular” nature of modern life, scholars have been especially drawn to those aspects of visual culture that seem the most alluring and immersive. Describing color television as a form of “enhanced vision,” Murray’s Bright Signals fits squarely within this trend.

Yet, looking at consumers’ high level of tolerance for low-definition, nonimmersive visual technologies, it’s hard not to wonder whether it might be time for a slight recalibration. How might one go about writing a history of visuality from the standpoint of the “good enough”—the marginally, intermittently, and imperfectly visible?

These objections aren’t meant to detract from Murray’s achievement. Her book is a standout in a field—television studies—that itself deserves attention and praise.

Interestingly, one thing that makes television studies unique is how it diverges from cinema studies. Concerned with establishing the cultural value of their object of study, early film studies scholars—modeling their work on literary studies and art history—tended to treat films as self-contained, individually authored texts. But television, routinely dismissed by elites as “a vast wasteland,” required a different approach.

Early experts approached the medium not as an art form but as a variety of “mass communication.” And textual analysis of individual shows or programs, while certainly influential, never became unequivocally dominant in the field. Drawing on social science and cultural studies approaches, television studies has gained a reputation, instead, for its sustained, intellectually rigorous analyses of the political, commercial, social, and cultural contexts in which particular media objects are produced and circulate.9

Murray’s book attracts attention as a particularly adroit example of what makes television studies important and interesting to nonexperts. In fact, Bright Signals accomplishes something quite extraordinary. Taking color—something traditionally deemed secondary, superficial, and unworthy of serious attention—as its main focus, the book makes a refreshingly new case for the centrality of television in American Cold War culture.

The winner of two major media studies book awards, Bright Signals deserves to be read widely by chromophiles, chromophobes, and chromoskeptics alike. The broader methodological questions it raises testify to the author’s intellectual ambitions and the book’s multidisciplinary resonances. Regardless of how much it changed the world and how we see it, color television—in the author’s astute, nuanced analysis—reveals much more than meets the eye.


This article was commissioned by Anne Higonneticon

  1. On this subject, see Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  2. “Color in Industry,” Fortune Magazine, February 1930.
  3. Regina Blaszcyzk and Uwe Spiekermann, Bright Modernity: Color, Commerce, and Consumer Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 5.
  4. Regina Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution (MIT Press, 2012), p. 5.
  5. This argument builds on earlier work by Doron Galili and others on early conceptualizations of television as a form of prosthetic sight.
  6. Here, Murray’s analysis draws upon the research of Jonathan Sterne and Dylan Mulvin, in particular, “The Low Acuity for Blue: Perceptual Technics and American Color Television,” Journal of Visual Culture, no. 13 (2014).
  7. Faber Birren, Selling Color to People (University Books, 1956), p. 123.
  8. My observations concerning the low-definition conditions of color television and viewing practices are inspired, in part, by Sterne and Mulvin, “The Low Acuity for Blue.”
  9. See Jonathan Gray and Amanda D. Lotz, Television Studies: Short Introductions, 2nd ed. (Polity, 2019).
Featured image: A Color Television Test at the Mount Kaukau Transmitting Station, New Zealand (1970). Photograph by Archives New Zealand / Wikimedia Commons