Thursday, September 07, 2006

A forgotten format war

To paraphrase Police Inspector Hans Wilhelm Friederich Kemp in Young Frankenstein, "A format war ist an ugly thing." Best to be on the outside looking in, as Ralph suggests.

Of course, not all of Ralph's examples are really format wars — many are just cases of a new and better technology taking over, like 33-1/3 LP records replacing 78s. There may be some resistance, but the benefits are obvious.

One format war Ralph didn't discuss was the fight between CBS and RCA to develop the first color television system.

In the late 1940s, CBS proposed a "Field Sequential Color System." Simply described, it was a mechanical color system that used spinning red/blue/green color wheels, and was incompatible with existing black and white broadcasts.

RCA had a major stake in television production of existing sets and decided to combat the new system, which would have made their sets obsolete. They developed the "Dot Sequential Color System." While the performance of this system was not as good (initially) as the CBS system, it had the advantage of requiring no moving parts and broadcasts were compatible with existing B/W sets.

RCA used its significant political connections to slow the FCC approval process while they perfected their color system and sold as many TVs as possible. By the time the FCC decided in favor of RCA, it was a moot point — TVs using the current system NTSC standards were becoming ubiquitous in American living rooms, and consumers would have rebelled against having to buy a new TV to take advantage of the new standards. Remember, a simple TV then cost a lot of money in today's dollars.

So, CBS may have been the first to broadcast in color, but it's only a footnote in history now.

P.S. If you're interested in the history of television, check out this excellent history: Tube, by David E., and Marshall John Fisher.

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