Bright Signals: A History of Color Television

Bright Signals: A History of Color Television by Susan Murray was a weighty book generously supplemented with colour photos (as it should) yet it was a slow read as I felt it was bogged down with excessive technical language. Perhaps a book such as this isn’t meant for pleasure reading, as the endnotes were populated sometimes with more than one hundred per chapter, and the book was only 257 pages long. However as the book progressed from tech talk about how TV’s worked to a history of how colour television was introduced–surprisingly, with reluctance–into American living rooms, it became more of an interesting read.

From the plentiful notes and citations I noticed immediately that Murray relied mainly on women experts and scientists to tell this history. Women are often overshadowed in their contributions to science and Murray ensured that if a point had to be proven, she sought a woman whose work or text could be cited. Many of the networks’ first colour consultants were women, hired to ensure that the colours on the set worked in harmony and did not clash. Murray outlined the psychological studies conducted about the effectiveness of colour and how it might affect the hues projected into the home. I found all this psycho-colour talk to be overkill, but it was considered important at the time when all people had to look at was black-and-white. Colour also influenced advertising and sponsors loved it as they felt it enhanced their products and made them more sellable.

One reason the viewing audience did not at first embrace colour television, aside from the obvious high price of the sets themselves, was on account of the poor quality of the colour reception. Colours bled or did not transfer properly, so the viewing experience was an expensive muddle of finger paints. Murray cited Cynthia Lowry in the Los Angeles Times:

“Sometimes, it seems, we spend more time in deep knee bends adjusting the set than sitting back enjoying the show. It is obvious that the three networks have not gotten together to synchronize their palettes. On a Sunday night if one adjusts his set–as directed–to flesh tones on the suntanned face of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on ABC’S The FBI and switches over to CBS’ Ed Sullivan, the latter often looks as if he were suffering from an advanced case of yellow jaundice. That requires some more emergency knob tuning.”

Murray’s history ended with the various moon landings, so she took colour TV to outer space and wrote about the special equipment and transmission needed. For such a slow read–I felt it would have taken me longer to read this than it did–the book did pick up and I embraced all the vibrant photos of colour TV ads, no doubt printed that way to entice potential customers to ditch their B&W sets and take the plunge into the colour pool.

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