Among the earliest published proposals for television was one by Maurice Le Blanc in 1880 for a color system, including the first mentions in television literature of line and frame scanning, although he gave no practical details. Polish inventor Jan Szczepanik patented a color television system in 1897, using a selenium photoelectric cell at the transmitter and an electromagnet controlling an oscillating mirror and a moving prism at the receiver. But his system contained no means of analyzing the spectrum of colors at the transmitting end, and could not have worked as he described it.
John Logie Baird demonstrated the world's first color transmission on July 3, 1928, using scanning discs at the transmitting and receiving ends with three spirals of apertures, each spiral with filters of a different primary color; and three light sources at the receiving end, with a commutator to alternate their illumination. Baird also made the world's first color broadcast on February 4 1938, sending a mechanically scanned 120-line image from Baird's Crystal Palace studios to a projection screen at London's Dominion Theatre.
In the electronically scanned era, the first color television demonstration was on February 5, 1940, when RCA privately showed to members of the FCC at the RCA plant in Camden, New Jersey, a television receiver producing color images by optically combining the images from two picture tubes onto a single rear-projection screen. CBS began experimental color field tests using film as early as August 28, 1940, and live cameras by November 12. The CBS field-sequential color system was partly mechanical, with a disc made of red, blue, and green filters spinning inside the television camera at 1,200 rpm, and a similar disc spinning in synchronization in front of the cathode ray tube inside the receiver set. RCA's later "dot sequential" color system had no moving parts, using a series of dichroic mirrors to separate and direct red, green, and blue light from the subject through three separate lenses into three scanning tubes, and electronic switching that allowed the tubes to send their signals in rotation, dot by dot. These signals were sorted by a second switching device in the receiver set and sent to red, green, and blue picture tubes, and combined by a second set of dichroic mirrors into a full color image.
NBC (owned by RCA) made its first field test of color television on February 20, 1941. CBS began daily color field tests on June 1, 1941. These color systems were not compatible with existing black and white television sets, and as no color television sets were available to the public at this time, viewership of the color field tests was limited to RCA and CBS engineers and the invited press. The War Production Board halted the manufacture of television and radio equipment for civilian use from April 22, 1942 to August 20, 1945, limiting any opportunity to introduce color television to the general public.
The post-war development of color television was dominated by three systems competing for approval by the FCC as the U.S. color broadcasting standard: CBS's field-sequential color system, which was incompatible with existing black and white sets without an adapter; RCA's dot sequential system, which in 1949 became compatible with existing black and white sets; and CTI's system (also incompatible with existing black and white sets), which used three camera lenses, behind which were color filters that produced red, green, and blue images side by side on a single scanning tube, and a receiver set that used lenses in front of the picture tube (which had sectors treated with different phosphorescent compounds to glow in red, green, or blue) to project these three side by side images into one combined picture on the viewing screen.
During its campaign for FCC approval, CBS gave the first demonstrations of color television to the American general public, showing an hour of color programs daily Mondays through Saturdays, beginning January 12, 1950, and running for the remainder of the month, over WOIC in Washington, D.C., where they could be viewed on eight 16-inch color receivers in a public building. Due to high public demand, the broadcasts were resumed February 13–21, with several evening programs added. CBS initiated a limited schedule of color broadcasts from its New York station WCBS-TV Mondays to Saturdays beginning November 14, 1950, making ten color receivers available for the viewing public. All were broadcast using the single color camera that CBS owned. The New York broadcasts were extended by coaxial cable to Philadelphia's WCAU-TV beginning December 13.
After a series of hearings beginning in September 1949, the FCC found the RCA and CTI systems fraught with technical problems, inaccurate color reproduction, and expensive equipment, and so formally approved the CBS system as the U.S. color broadcasting standard on October 11 1950. An unsuccessful lawsuit by RCA delayed the world's first network color broadcast until June 25 1951, when a musical variety special titled simply Premiere was shown over a network of five east coast CBS affiliates. Viewership was again extremely limited: the program could not be seen on black and white sets, and Variety estimated that only thirty prototype color receivers were available in the New York area. Regular color broadcasts began that same week with the daytime series The World Is Yours and Modern Homemakers.
While the CBS color broadcasting schedule gradually expanded to twelve hours per week (but never into prime time), and the color network expanded to eleven affiliates as far west as Chicago, its commercial success was doomed by the lack of color receivers necessary to watch the programs, the refusal of television manufacturers to create adapter mechanisms for their existing black and white sets, and the unwillingness of advertisers to sponsor broadcasts seen by almost no one. CBS had bought a television manufacturer in April, and in September 1951, production began on the first and only CBS-Columbia color television model. But it was too little, too late. Only 200 sets had been shipped, and only 100 sold, when CBS pulled the plug on its color television system on October 20, 1951, ostensibly by request of the National Production Authority for the duration of the Korean conflict, and bought back all the CBS color sets it could to prevent lawsuits by disappointed customers.
Starting before CBS color even got on the air, the U.S. television industry, represented by the National Television System Committee, worked in 1950–1953 to develop a color system that was compatible with existing black and white sets and would pass FCC quality standards, with RCA developing the hardware elements. RCA first made publicly announced field tests of the dot sequential color system over its New York station WNBT in July 1951. When CBS testified before Congress in March 1953 that it had no further plans for its own color system, the National Production Authority dropped its ban on the manufacture of color television receivers, and the path was open for the NTSC to submit its petition for FCC approval in July 1953, which was granted on December 17. The first publicly announced network broadcast of a program using the NTSC "compatible color" system was an episode of NBC's Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953, although it was viewable in color only at the network's headquarters.
NBC made the first coast-to-coast color broadcast when it telecast the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1 1954, with public demonstrations given across the United States on prototype color receivers by manufacturers RCA, General Electric, Philco, Raytheon, Hallicrafters, Hoffman, Pacific Mercury and others. A color model from Westinghouse ($1,295, or $9,934 in 2007 dollars) became available in the New York area on February 28 and is generally agreed to be the first production receiver using NTSC color offered to the public; a less expensive color model from RCA reached dealers in April. Television's first prime time network color series was The Marriage, a situation comedy broadcast live by NBC in the summer of 1954. NBC's anthology series Ford Theatre became the first color filmed series that October.
Early color telecasts could only be preserved on the black and white kinescope process introduced in 1947. It wasn't until the fall of 1956 that NBC began using color film to preserve some of its color telecasts. Two years later color videotape was first used when President Eisenhower inaugurated NBC's new Washington, D.C. studios. The first nationally-televised color telecast recorded on videotape was An Evening With Fred Astaire on NBC in 1958, which has been released on home video.
Several syndicated shows had episodes filmed in color during the 1950s, including The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger, and Adventures of Superman. These were carried by some stations equipped for color telecasts well before NBC began its regular weekly color dramas in 1959, beginning with the Western series Bonanza.
NBC was at the forefront of color programming because its parent company RCA manufactured the most successful line of color sets in the 1950s, and by 1959 RCA was the only remaining major manufacturer of color sets. CBS and ABC, which were not affiliated with set manufacturers, and were not eager to promote their competitor's product, dragged their feet into color. CBS ceased all regular color programming between 1960 and 1965, while ABC delayed its first color series until 1962. The DuMont network, although it did have a television-manufacturing parent company, was in financial decline by 1954 and was dissolved two years later. Thus the relatively small amount of network color programming, combined with the high cost of color television sets, meant that as late as 1964 only 3.1 percent of television households in the U.S. had a color set. NBC provided the catalyst for rapid color expansion by announcing that its prime time schedule for fall 1965 would be almost entirely in color. All three broadcast networks were airing full color prime time schedules by the 1966–67 broadcast season, and ABC aired its last new black and white daytime programming in December 1967. But the number of color television sets sold in the U.S. did not exceed black and white sales until 1972, which was also the first year that more than fifty percent of television households in the U.S. had a color set. This was also the year that "in color" notices before color television programs ended, due to the rise in color television set sales.
On August 31, 1946 González Camarena sent his first color transmission from his lab in the offices of The Mexican League of Radio Experiments at Lucerna St. #1, in Mexico City. The video signal was transmitted at a frequency of 115 MHz. and the audio in the 40 metre band. He obtained authorization to make the first publicly announced color broadcast in Mexico, on February 8, 1963, of the program Paraíso Infantil on Mexico City's XHGC-TV.
As a consequence, although work on various color encoding systems started already in the 1950s, with the first SECAM patent being registered in 1956, many years had passed when the first broadcasts actually started in 1967. Unsatisfied with the performance of NTSC and of initial SECAM implementations, the Germans unveiled PAL (phase alternating line) in 1963, technically similar to NTSC but borrowing some ideas from SECAM. The French continued with SECAM, notably involving Russians in the development.
The first full-specification PAL receivers ("PAL-D") relied on a precision ultrasonic glass delay line, which in the early days was estimated would make up about a third of the cost of the receiver. Other color encoding systems had already been proposed which would overcome the tint problems of NTSC using such a delay line, but PAL was unique in that an economy receiver (known as "PAL-S" for "simple PAL") could also be built without using a delay line, with a performance no worse than, and in most cases better than an equivalent NTSC model.
SECAM did not require such precision for its delay line, and could use much cheaper magnetostrictive metal types. Ironically, by the time PAL broadcasts commenced in 1967, advances in glassmaking techniques had dropped the cost of precision PAL delay lines so much that hardly any simple-PAL receivers were built commercially, and virtually all SECAM receivers used the same type of delay line as PAL receivers. By the end of the 20th century, glass delay lines had been completely replaced by all-electronic equivalents.
The first regular color broadcasts in Europe were by BBC2 beginning on July 1, 1967 (PAL). West Germany's first broadcast occurred in August (PAL), followed by the French in October (SECAM). Norway, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary all started regular color broadcasts before the end of 1969.
In Italy there were debates to adopt a national color television system, the ISA, developed by Indesit, but that idea was scrapped. As a result, Italy was one of the last European countries to officially adopt the PAL system in 1977, after long technical experimentation.
France, Luxembourg, and the Soviet Union along with their overseas territories opted for SECAM. SECAM was a popular choice in countries with a lot of hilly terrain, and technologically backward countries with a very large installed base of monochrome equipment, since the greater ruggedness of the SECAM signal could cope much better with poorly maintained equipment.
The only real drawback of SECAM is that, unlike PAL or NTSC, post-production of an encoded SECAM is not really possible without a severe drop in quality.
The first regular color broadcasts in SECAM were started on October 1, 1967, on France's Second Channel (ORTF 2e chaîne). In France and the UK color broadcasts were made on UHF frequencies, the VHF band being used for legacy black and white, 405 lines in UK or 819 lines in France, till the beginning of the eighties. Countries elsewhere that were already broadcasting 625-line monochrome on VHF and UHF, simply transmitted color programs on the same channels.
It should be noted that some British television programmes, particularly those made by or for ITC Entertainment, were shot on color film before the introduction of color television to the UK, for the purpose of sales to US networks. The first British show to be made in color was the drama series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-57), which was initially made in black and white but later shot in color for sale to the NBC network in the United States. Other British color television programmes include Stingray (1964-1965), which was the first British TV show to filmed entirely in color, Thunderbirds (1965-1966) and Captain Scarlet (1967-1968).