Communications Commission Creates Confrontational and Cacophonic Court Case

Today’s post is written by Katie Dishman, of the National Archives at Chicago.

“The following program is brought to you in living color by CBS.”  Wait.  That’s not right.  But it might have been if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had its way back in 1950.  The variation of the long-used advertising slogan by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), first uttered in 1957, may not have been conceived unless a lawsuit had transpired to delay the color television process.

Civil Action No. 50C1459 from the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Chicago, began in 1950 as the FCC gave its blessing for the Columbia Broadcasting System’s method for color television to be the nationwide standard.  Immediately injunctions were filed against the FCC, not only by NBC but also the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the RCA Victor Distributing Corporation.

FCC Exhibit 1950
Exhibit page from the court case featuring the FCC’s decision on its selection of a color TV standard

RCA had been developing a competing color TV system which the FCC had dismissed.  Another company, Color Television Inc., also had created a system not chosen by the government agency.  So the FCC selection of CBS gave it the exclusive franchise in the field of color TV.  In fact, an exhibit in the case from 1947 submitted by the FCC discusses how in September 1946 CBS had requested the Commission to “authorize the operation of commercial color television stations in the frequency band 480 to 920 megacycles and to amend its Standards of Good Engineering Practice Concerning Television Broadcast Stations ….”  At that time, the FCC said the Columbia Broadcasting System did not meet its standards.

But by 1950, the revised system was approved by the FCC; a “Brief for the Government” explained how the FCC held hearings and field tests of different systems from 1949-1950.

The system chosen was based on a mechanical color wheel with a spinning color disc converter and an adjustable handle with three positions: one for receiving black and white programs, one for receiving color programs in black and white, and one for receiving color programs in color.  CBS said it planned on remaining strictly a broadcasting entity and that it did not intend on entering the manufacturing side.  However, it did plan on airing color shows in the New York City region.  And the network began a “publicity barrage” for its new device.  Although CBS said it would make its color patents available to others in the industry, royalties involved had been estimated to be $50 million.

The costs affiliated with buying an adapter to attach to TV sets ranged from $15 to $50 which would allow color telecasts to be picked up, although the picture would be “coarse.”  For $60 to $150, a converter could be purchased to attach to the set that would bring the color picture in directly.  Finally, color receivers were going to be manufactured at a cost of anywhere from $200-$500.

And where money is involved, controversy is sure to follow.  David Sarnoff, who at the time was chairman of RCA, said, “We regard this decision as scientifically unsound and against the public interest.  The hundreds of millions of dollars that present set owners would have to spend and that future set owners would have to pay to obtain a degraded picture…reduces the order to an absurdity.”

One of the primary objections was that the quality of the CBS product was inferior to others in the development phase.  Engineers claimed that the CBS system was incompatible because color signals could not be picked up with current televisions.  It was estimated that between 7 and 8 million sets were in use in the United States.

There were many parties who played roles in the case besides the primary three listed on the civil action.  Pilot Radio Corporation filed an intervening complaint saying it was “one of the pioneers in the field of television,” and it “suffered substantial harm” because of the FCC order.  The complaint said the government agency should not impose “arbitrary and capricious” rules on the public which “is fearful that black and white sets will be obsolete in view of the Commission’s determination on color.”  Furthermore, the Commission had “no power to regulate or control the manufacture of television receivers” and that it approved a CBS system that was “not yet ready for commercialization and which was far from satisfactory….”

Also, Local 1031, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL (an unincorporated labor union), filed an intervention since it “represents persons employed by various manufacturers of radio and television receivers, parts and equipment… and allied products.”  The complaint stated that a “violent overturn in the industry, and a complete loss of public confidence in the purchase of any television receivers at all has been averted only by the vigorous counter-offensive of the original plaintiffs in this action.”

Most parties with vested interests reported on the controversy.  Retail stores noted there was a decline in television sales as consumers waited for the resolution of the issue and perhaps the creation of color television sets in the near future.  Even electronic industry stock prices declined in October 1950, according to some articles, because of the unknown effect of how the FCC ruling would play out; it was to take effect in November 1950.

Advertisements sprang up in newspapers across the country.  The case has several exhibits of ad facsimiles showing how companies tried to allay the perceived fears of consumers about how much they will have to spend on new television receivers.  For instance, one from Raytheon Television features the headline “What are the Straight Facts About Color Television?” although, interestingly, no TV sets are pictured in the advertisement.  In addition, General Electric took out a full-page spread in the New York Times with the headline, “Nobody is going to obsolete [sic] over 100 million dollars worth of TV entertainment!”

Frank Stanton, the President of CBS, was one of the many who filed affidavits in the case.  Of course, Mr. Stanton dismissed the plaintiffs’ objections saying they would not suffer “irreparable injury caused by…the FCC’s order adopting standards for the color system developed by CBS….”  He contended the only injury the plaintiffs would suffer would be to “their pride and publicity” but that the public would be hurt should the order be suspended.

Contrarily, the affidavit of C.B. Jolliffe, an Executive Vice President of RCA, countered that for the “first time in its history, the Commission has established standards over the protest of the scientists, engineers, and technicians of almost the entire radio and television industry.”

As we often find when studying history, everything old is new again.  A few years ago when the United States converted to high definition digital television, there was an uproar nationwide, especially since there was a cost element involved.  Although the digital conversion was mandated by Congress to begin in 2006, it was postponed a couple times before coming to fruition in 2009.

But back in 1950, the protestations were overwhelming.  The Order from the three presiding judges in the case allowed the temporary restraint and suspension of the FCC decision until April 1951 or until it was officially terminated by the Supreme Court where the District Court sent the suit.  All the “plaintiff-intervenors” were, most likely, pleased their pleas were heeded, including NBC and its impending, colorful trademarked peacock.

EPILOGUE:  The suit made its way quickly to the Supreme Court in March 1951.  Case number 565 was decided in May 1951 ruling in favor of the FCC.  No doubt the plaintiffs’ appeasement was short-lived.

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