History of Color Television Recording

And Time-Zone Delay

Ed. Reitan, Jr.

October 31, 2009



The progress of early color television was greatly hindered because of the lack of a suitable solution to the East Coast / West Coast time-zone problem.  A live 8:00 P.M EST color program from New York was viewed in California at 5:00 P.M. PST  Many major color programs were produced on Sundays to allow viewing the program at a suitable time on  a late California Sunday afternoon.


Even the major 1955 production of “Peter Pan” was shown on a Monday afternoon in California starting at 4:30 P.M.  As this time was unacceptable to sponsors, many color programs, originating in New York prime time, were only seen at their later California prime time via muddy black and white kinescope recordings.   


As RCA and NBC had a major stake in assuring success of color television, a solution to this problem had to be found.


A color kinescope recording process was operational with the start of NTSC colorcasting in 1954.  A Triniscope (three crt) receiver provided sufficient brightness to directly expose the low speed color film of the era.  A short color film kinescope recording does survive of the January 19, 1954 Dinah Shore Show from the NBC New York Colonial Theater.


However, this direct color film recording process was not practical for time-zone delay purposes as it required more than three hours, at that time, to develop color film.


The lenticular color recording process was therefore developed.  NBC and RCA engineers provided recording and playback hardware, and Eastman Kodak developed the 35 mm black and white reversal lenticular film.  Two recording channels were installed at NBC Burbank.  RCA TK-26 color film cameras were modified to play the lenticular films.  The black and white lenticular film could be developed within the three hour time-zone turn-around time. 


The first program to be time-zone delayed at Burbank by the new lenticular film color kinescope process was the September 29, 1956 "Esther Williams Aqua Spectacle" from NBC's Brooklyn studio. ( http://www.novia.net/~ereitan/rca-nbc_firsts.html )  The lenticular process yielded poor image quality, but its use continued through early 1958.


RCA first demonstrated recording of color television via magnetic tape on December 1, 1953.  However, their impractical approach used narrow tape moving longitudinally at 30 feet per second.  Asbestos gloves were used by operators to slow down the stopping four-minute tape reels.


A prototype machine was then developed and installed at NBC New York.  On May 12, 1955, playback of a color program was sent via closed circuit microwave link from New York to the 3M Company in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The program featured David Sarnoff, CEO of RCA/NBC, Dr. Harry Olson (whose RCA Labs staff had developed the recorder), and stars including Eddie Fisher and Bambi Linn.


NBC’s only network use of the longitudinal RCA magnetic tape was on October 23, 1956 as part of the "The Jonathan Winters Show".  A sequence consisting of a pre-recorded song (by Dorothy Collins) was presented in color during the program.  The longitudinal approach was abandoned shortly thereafter.


Although Ampex developed practical videotape recording and playback of black and white television, their machines could not reproduce color television.  The Ampex concept was to use two-inch magnetic tape, moving at 15-inches per second, past a wheel with four tape heads, rotating at 14,400 rpm and penetrating into the tape. 


The feat of color television recording and playback was first accomplished by scientists at RCA Laboratories during 1957.  To do this, RCA modified an Ampex VRX-1000 machine with additional racks of RCA Labs designed electronics.  Experimental videotape time-zone delay of a color “Kraft Theater” was first publically disclosed as being done from NBC Hollywood on February 19, 1958.  Observant viewers had seen even earlier unannounced color videotape playbacks for time-zone delay.


On April 28, 1958, NBC dedicated its $1.5M Videotape Central at Burbank. The facility included a single RCA Color Video Tape Recorder and eight Ampex black-and-white machines converted to color with the RCA Labs designed electronics. With the onset of daylight savings time, the facility was used for multiple time-zone delay. Shortly thereafter, a total of four RCA Broadcast Color Recorders became operational in the facility.


CBS network use of color videotape was not until Christmas Day, 1958 at CBS Television City Hollywood with the time-zone delay of the “Playhouse 90” color production, “The Nutcracker”.   CBS used an Ampex machine modified with an Ampex 1010 color processing kit.


 The deployment of color video tape was to cause a major change in the production of television programs.



Version c

© 2009 E. H. Reitan