Half a century ago, the TV networks finally went full color

Television's slow transition to color spanned many decades.

In July of 1928, John Logie Baird made history. The Scottish inventor demontrated the first color television transmission. He had already made his mark on the medium in 1924, having successfully transmitted the first television image, a shot of his ventriloquist dummy, Stooky Bill. In 1938, Baird shook the world again, making the first color television broadcast. Of course, it would take decades for the advancement to reach the masses.

The 1966–67 television season would be the first in which the three major networks broadcast their primetime lineups in full color. But not all networks were equal in their march to the full color spectrum. NBC was continually ahead in the game, thanks to the fact it was owned by RCA, which manufactured the color cameras for studios and color sets for homes. Meanwhile, in a sort of precursor to the VHS vs. Betamax war, CBS held out, as the company tried to push its own partially mechanical "field-sequential color system" of broadcasting color. 

The slow transition from black & white to color is evident in many shows we have aired on MeTV. The syndicated Adventures of Superman switched to color in 1955 — despite that many did not have the capacity to see the Man of Steel in his spectacular red and blue. The first season of Gilligan's Island was in black & white, before the sitcom jumped to color in 1965, the same season that The Andy Griffith Show finally depicted Mayberry in a rainbow palette. Even Aunt Bee's show-within-a-show was in color, as you can see up top.

As we remember America's transition to color, let's take a look at some fascinating moments in the technology's timeline.

1. Jessica Tandy starred in the first primetime TV series regularly broadcast in color.

Though it lasted a mere eight episodes, The Marriage has a firm place in history. Originally a radio program starring Tandy, the sitcom made the leap straight to color in the summer of '54. Even if the show was in color, the promotional images, like the one here, were still in B&W.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. 'An Evening with Fred Astaire' was the first program kept on color tape.

While other color programs may have gone over the air earlier, they were typically archived on black & white kinoscope. Airing in 1958, An Evening with Fred Astaire became the first program recorded to color videotape.

Image: NBC / YouTube

3. 'Perry Mason' experimented with one episode in color.

Loyal MeTV viewers may have caught this one on our network. CBS wished to see what Perry Mason looked like in color late in its run. The execs had plans to craft a tenth season in color, so one test episode was shot in the format, "The Case of the Twice-Told Twist." It aired on February 27, 1966. However, shortly after Raymond Burr finally agreed to a tenth season, CBS canceled the series.

4. NBC had all of its news in color by October '66.

Finally, people could see more of the real world in full color.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. Daytime shows like 'The Secret Storm' were the last commercial programs to go color.

Though primetime had gone color, the daytime schedule still had specks of greyscale. Soaps such as The Secret Storm, pictured here, took another year before making the switch around the end of 1967.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' was perhaps the last black & white show on network television.

Meanwhile, over on public television, black & white lived on a little while longer. The first season of Mister Rogers ran without color on NET (National Educational Television) in 1968. When the children's classic finally went color, viewers realized that the walls of Mr. Roger's house were yellow. He painted them their familiar blue in an episode and they stayed that way.

Image: Wikipedia

7. Color television sets finally surpassed black & white in 1972.

Even if the networks had all gone color, our living rooms had not. It wasn't until 1972 that sales of color TV sets surpassed those of black & white sets. As you can see in this 1972 Sears Christmas catalog, both were still offered side by side. The 15" color set was around $300, while a 12" black & white ran about one-third that cost.

Image: wishbookweb.com

8. A Pittsburgh station did not convert to color until 1986.

As hard as it is to believe, WQEX was broadcasting in black & white until 1985, when its aging transmitter went kaputt. After raising money for a new color transmitter, the station finally went color a year later. This promo image is from not long after that.

Image: WQEX / WINP / YouTube

9. Sears sold its last B&W sets in 1990.

According to a 1992 story in the LA Times, most major retailers had totally bailed on black & white in the early '90s. Sears offered its last non-color set in 1990, a $79 door-buster deal to get people in stores. The article noted that "prisons [were] among the few remaining customers" for black & white TVs at the time. 

Image: wishbookweb.com

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