Q and A on colour TV 

19 December 2023 tbs.pm/80293

The questions are easy:
When is it coming in? How much will a set cost? Will it mean the end of black-and-white? Here are the answers, by HUGH GREATOREX, Head of Engineering Information, BBC – with some new from two famous TV firms.



TVMirror cover

From TVMirror for week commencing 12 May 1956

Q. What is the purpose of the BBC’s present colour TV tests?

A. By carrying out colour TV experiments the BBC is getting ready for the time when colour becomes a practical proposition. But that doesn’t mean that transmissions will then commence.

One of the things that we, together with the radio industry, have had to answer is “How do you produce a colour picture?” Modern systems are based on the primary colours red, green and blue, but we had to know what red, green and blue were going to be best.

It has taken us three or four years to know how to produce colour TV, but now that phase is over and the industry has been given time to design sets that can receive colour pictures.

Q. How many phases are there?

A. 1. Optical research.

2. How to produce a colour picture in the laboratory.

3. (The present phase.) How to transmit and receive a colour picture. We started transmissions last October, and they will last until the autumn of 1956.

4. Assuming that the system we are testing is successful, and compatible with black-and-white screens, the BBC and radio industry must decide whether it should be adopted. If so, they will recommend it to the Television Advisory Committee. This would be towards the end of 1956, assuming of course that this system is the one recommended.

5. The Television Advisory Committee then recommends — or otherwise — the Postmaster-General to adopt it.


Q. How long then, before transmissions start?

A. I estimate at the very minimum three years — and it’s likely to be longer.


A man operates a TV camera

THE CAMERA… adapted from one already in use in America, it is now being used regularly in BBC experimental transmissions


Q. You used the word ‘compatible’. What does it mean?

A. A compatible colour TV system is one capable of being received in black and white on an ordinary set. To ensure this many hundreds of monochrome sets are being tested, because some behave differently to others. For example, fringe area sets are different to normal ones. Such widespread tests must clearly go on for months.

Q. What system is being used for the tests?

A. It is the NTSC system, initials of the National Television System Committee, and based on the one being used in the USA. But ours is an adapted version.

Q. What will colour receivers cost?

A. As a rough estimate I would say about the same as a monochrome set plus 50 per cent. For instance, a present 17-inch set costing about £90 [about £1,860 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] would be about £140 [£2,900].

Q. The BBC is being criticised in some quarters for holding to its 405-line standard, when Continental standards are different. Before colour TV is established would it not be wise for Britain to fall in line with other European countries?

A. In Europe there are two line-standards: 625 and 819. Belgium is using both. It is argued that since the British standard differs from the rest of the Continent we should change. But I doubt if they could muster a million sets between them. We now have six million. All those would be out-of-date.

At the same time there is a school of argument which says, if we cannot find a colour system that is ideally compatible — and is not quite right for either colour or monochrome — then it would be best to start all over again on a different bandwidth. Then we could have any number of lines.

But that would mean greatly increased costs. Including new transmitters, new Post Office links, more expensive TV sets.


A black and white picture of a man and a woman in dazzling Regency-style clothes

THE COLOUR… easy enough to imagine how an ice spectacle such as this would look in full colour on your screen. Already British transmissions have shown colour as good as seen in the cinema


Q. Wouldn’t it assist our exports of TV sets if we changed to a European standard?

A. A lot of hooey has been said on this subject. It’s argued, for instance, that it is easier for West Germany to export sets they are already making for their home market. But in Belgium they have two line-standards, and they are making sets attuned to both, with no apparent increase in price. It is a production-line problem, which means altering the radio-frequency strip in the receiver, but nobody can convince me that would be expensive.

Q. Talking of expense, what arw the present colour TV experiments costing the BBC?

A. They are part of the normal research work of the BBC as applied to the needs of broadcasting. So much of the experiments is interlocked with other research activities it is impossible to show any balance-sheet figure under the single heading “Colour.”

Q. Finally, when colour TV comes, will all programmes be in colour?

A. No, Colour programmes need more equipment and more people to run them. It takes longer to produce scenery and settings for colour TV, and costumes and make-up are more difficult.

In America only about two hours of colour a week are being transmitted.

Meanwhile, several radio manufacturers are making their own contributions to TV’s colour problem.

Recently Pye Ltd., of Cambridge, demonstrated large-screen colour pictures on a closed circuit for the first time in Britain.

From a temporary studio in the foyer of a London theatre a newly-developed colour camera produced pictures which were seen in the theatre on an 8 ft. by 6 ft. screen. A colour TV projector that Pye have been working on continuously for the past two years was used.

A man works at a bank of electronics

As colour comes, the equipment grows in complexity. Official caption to this picture: “The operator is changing a binary counter in the synchronising generator unit.” What does it mean? That*s a question TV MIRROR is NOT answering!

Interesting point is that both camera and projector were designed to operate on a 625-line system.

For the first time in a colour camera, it was claimed, special tubes have been used to give greater fidelity, whether in daylight or artificial light. The camera is also suitable for televising colour films.

“It is hoped,” states the firm, “that it will shortly be possible to offer these colour cameras for sale on the export market, particularly in the United States, where there is the only colour TV service for entertainment so far in existence.”

Mr. B. J. Edwards, Technical Director of Pye Ltd., in a lecture given at the demonstration, criticised the continuance of the 405-line system. “In my opinion any compatible system which continued to use 405 lines for a colour picture will in the long run be unacceptable from the public’s point of view, and I feel most strongly therefore that we should come into line with the European standard suitably adapted for compatible colour, as soon as possible,” he said.

When Marconi gave a demonstration in 1954 they stated that ever since the inception of TV their engineers had been engaged in research into the possibilities of colour, and had spent a lot of time trying out various systems. Attention had always been given to the British 405-line standard, as well as to those of other countries.

The Marconi demonstration showed two possible methods of colour TV, both electronic, and though the firm said it did not wish to advocate any particular system, it was fully prepared to supply any colour system considered to be best in the public interest.

In September, 1955, Marconi delivered a complete colour TV camera and equipment to the BBC.

The apparatus required no more band-width (or ether space) for its operation than does the normal black and white service — a great problem in earlier experiments. It was claimed that the camera was equally suitable for indoor or outdoor scenes and could televise all kinds of colour film. And a thousand-hour test had shown no significant depreciation of picture quality.

It is this apparatus which the BBC is using for its present colour tests.


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