The Color TV Wars – An Interview With FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock – June 1951 – Past Daily Reference Room

A little like Mono versus Stereo, VHS versus Betamax, Microsoft versus Apple

A little like Mono versus Stereo, VHS versus Betamax, Microsoft versus Apple

. . . or click on the link here for Audio Player – Meet The Press – Guest: FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock – June 10, 1951 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection.

Hard to imagine now, but some 63 years ago the debate was raging over the development of Color TV. There were two competing systems; a color system developed by CBS and a color system developed by RCA (who was the parent company of NBC at the time). The CBS version touted better color and picture quality but was incompatible with the current batch of Black & White TVs currently on the market. The RCA version didn’t have such good color but was rumored to be compatible with most Black & White TV sets.

The issue was – which Color TV format would become the standard? The FCC was dragged into the controversy and having the decide which one was going to get the nod and which one wasn’t. But it was a bit more complicated than that. If the FCC went for the CBS format, that would mean the 10-12 million owners of TV sets in the U.S. would have a TV that essentially was obsolete and incompatible. If the FCC went with the RCA version, it meant the current Black and White owners would be able to see the color programs in Black & White, but the color wasn’t as good and there were a lot of technical hurdles to overcome. At the time of this broadcast of Meet The Press (June 10, 1951), FCC Commissioner Frieda Hennock suggested taking a wait-and-see approach; not jumping to any conclusions, but to see if the technologies being developed by the two competitors would further improve.

Bear in mind that, even though Meet The Press was unbiased in their questioning, the network carrying the program was NBC and since they were owned by RCA and RCA had the competing format, the questions got a little contentious from time to time.

True, RCA had been working on a color TV system as early as the 1930s – the War put a stop to it. The fact was, they had been working on a system, but the FCC never gave it the go-ahead.

Also – remember RCA and CBS were in competition for record speeds. CBS had introduced the lp (33 1/3 rpm) to the market in the late 1940s. While RCA had lagged behind, offering the 45 as their entry in the Record wars. Losing out to CBS yet again wasn’t something the shareholders of RCA were all that enthusiastic about.

So consider the record speed wars, and later the battle of Video Cassette formats and you get some idea of just what was at stake in this new element of home entertainment. There was a lot at stake.

To get an idea just what was going on, here is that episode of Meet The Press featuring FCC Commissioner Fried Hennock from June 18, 1951.

Fcc Commissioner Frieda Hennock - in the hot seat and getting pressure from all sides.

Fcc Commissioner Frieda Hennock – in the hot seat and getting pressure from all sides.

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