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Picture This: D-Day for DTV

A new era in broadcast television history.

Picture This: D-Day for DTV

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 PM,
By Jeff Sauer

A new era in broadcast television history.

What do Jan. 1, 1954, and Feb. 17, 2009, have in common? One is and the other presumably will become among the most important dates in television history, from a technology standpoint anyway, aside from the launch of broadcast television itself. Feb. 17, 2009, is, of course, the date the FCC has designated for the national transition to digital TV (DTV). Jan. 1, 1954, is often set forth as the birth of color TV.

Simplistically, each represents the dawn of a new era of broadcast technology, and they both stand as placeholders for what was/hopefully will be a dramatic change in how viewers experience television. And both sought/seek to enhance the viewing experience and, thus, the home-theater experience in their respective eras.

On Jan. 1, 1954, NBC — then owned by RCA — launched the first national color television broadcast “In Living Color,” as the slogan would soon come to boast. It was a live broadcast of the annual Tournament of Roses parade, a spectacle that’s still televised each year for its colorful splendor. Awkwardly, in 1954, very few people saw it.

At the time, only Admiral (the same manufacturer that is now best known for dishwashers and other appliances sold at the Home Depot) had a color TV set actually available for purchase. Although that model C1617A (oddly, given the model number, a 15in. display) only reached the market two days earlier on Dec. 30, 1953, and sales were anything but robust for the $1,175 TV that cost roughly the same as a new car at the time.

However, RCA was driving the technology. RCA didn’t hit the market with a color TV set until nearly four months later, but it did have a very small number of prototype color TVs set up at special screenings that were able to tune into the parade broadcast. Interestingly, in a March 11, 2004, “Facts for Features” press release, the U.S. Census Bureau indirectly cited March 25, 1954, as the dawn on the color TV era. That was when RCA began initial production of the CT-100 at its plant in Bloomington, Ind. — RCA’s first marketable color TV set and what would become the poster child for early switch to color. The CT-100 would begin shipping the following month for $1,000.


The idea of broadcasting color signals didn’t begin in 1954 and was actually in development for several years previously, with competing technologies vying for how to do it. In fact, the FCC initially endorsed a different technology from CBS three years earlier, only to rescind that endorsement two years later after CBS testified that it was no longer pursuing the technology. The problem for CBS’ technology — unlike that of RCA, which would become the color standard for the next five decades — was that it was not backward-compatible to existing black-and-white broadcast.

Demand was high for test screenings of CBS’ technology as early as 1950 — first in Washington, D.C., then New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities. But the interest did not translate into sales on sets that were both expensive and had, at the time, very little on-air programming to display. Early adopters generally had an hour per week of color.

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Picture This: D-Day for DTV

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 PM,
By Jeff Sauer

A new era in broadcast television history.

With the RCA technology, broadcasters could transmit one signal that could be viewed in black and white on existing TV sets or in color on the newer models. The FCC endorsed the RCA color-broadcast method. First Admiral, then Westinghouse, then RCA hit the market with early color sets in the first half of 1954, followed by many others. Unfortunately, none of those companies did well at retail either. The products were considered as early adopters and rated that way by the day’s reviewers. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972, 18 years later, that color television sets even outsold black-and-white sets.

The backward compatibility of NTSC color made the transition to color much easier on the consumer, allowing early adopters to become the go-to house in the neighborhood for home theater. Yet it was hardly good for the television makers, who ultimately lost money on every color set sold for the first few years. Still, 1954 was a turning point because it established the standard that would live for the next 50 years.


There are many ways in which the transition to DTV has been the same. It has been a full 10 years since a limited number of cities began broadcasting early digital signals — the high-profile, high-definition space-shuttle launch that marked John Glenn’s return to space on Oct. 28, 1998, marking the debut for many stations. Almost no one had the capability to watch, save those lucky enough to attend special public screening locations — such as Boston’s Museum of Science, the lobby of WCVB-TV in Needham, Mass., or other such facilities in other cities.

Yet as we have moved closer to Feb. 17, 2009, the differences from 1954 are more striking and more hopeful. Instead of few potential viewers, DTV-capable displays have been available for years and have, even despite a slumping economy, been selling in high volumes. Admittedly, price competition and erosion have meant that manufacturers aren’t necessarily reaping the benefits. But as D-Day for DTV approaches, the public appears to be in a much better position to be ready.

Unlike the first national color broadcast in 1954, Feb. 17 will hardly be the first time stations broadcast a DTV signal. Most major stations have been transmitting both analog and digital for several years. That Tuesday in February marks the point at which they can turn off the analog signal.

The DTV transition date also doesn’t affect cable and satellite customers, a healthy percentage of the television watching public, because those companies control their own signal distribution. Many have already switched most customers to digital set-top boxes and are ahead of the game.

A test analog shutdown in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 8, 2008, tested the waters of public understanding and readiness and mostly with very good success. Public-service campaigns and discounted converter boxes have been out in increasing volume for the last several months.

The actual analog shutdown only really affects “full-power” stations, leaving hundreds of smaller, rural-area stations able to continue to service consumers in analog without deadline at this time.

We’ll know in a short time how well and how far the transition information has actually disseminated based on the number of post-Feb. 17 problems and complaints there are, but many of the growing pains are likely to be behind us already. And once DTV — and its HDTV subset — become the norm, the professional AV industry should be in an even better position to upsell home entertainment.

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