Retrotechtacular: Information From The Days When Colour TV Was New

By the time colour TV came to the United Kingdom, it was old news to Americans. Most of the viewing public on the Western side of the Atlantic had had the opportunity to see more than black-and-white images for years when in 1967 the BBC started transmitting its first colour channel, BBC2.

For Americans and continental Europeans, the arrival of colour TV had been an incremental process, in which the colour subcarrier had been added to their existing transmission standard. Marketed as “compatible color” to Americans, this ensured that their existing black-and-white TV sets had no need for replacement as the new transmissions started.

The United Kingdom by contrast had been one of the first countries in the world to adopt a television standard in the 1930s, so its VHF 405-line positive-modulation black-and-white services stood alone and looked extremely dated three decades later. The BBC had performed experiments using modified round-CRT American sets to test the feasibility of inserting an NTSC colour subcarrier into a 405-line signal, but had eventually admitted defeat and opted for the Continental 625-line system with the German PAL colour encoding. This delivered colour TV at visibly better quality than the American NTSC system, but at the expense of a 15-year process of switching off all 405-line transmitters, replacing all 405-line sets, and installing new antennas for all viewers for the new UHF transmissions.

Such a significant upgrade must have placed a burden upon the TV repair and maintenance trade, because as part of the roll-out of the new standard the BBC produced and transmitted a series of short instructional animated films about the unfamiliar technology, which we’ve placed below the break. The engineer is taken through the signal problems affecting UHF transmissions, during which we’re reminded just how narrow bandwidth those early UHF Yagis must have been, then we are introduced to the shadowmask tube and all its faults. The dreaded convergence is introduced, as these were the days before precision pre-aligned CRTs, and we briefly see an early version of the iconic Test Card F. Finally we are shown the basic procedure for achieving the correct white balance. There is a passing reference to dual-standard sets, as if convergence for colour transmissions wasn’t enough of a nightmare a lot of the early colour sets incorporated a bank of switches on their PCB to select 405-line or 625-line modes. The hapless engineer would have to set up the convergence for both signals, something that must have tried their patience.

The final sequence looks at the hand-over of the new set to the customer. In an era in which we are used to consumer electronics with fantastic reliability we would not be happy at all with a PAL set from 1967. They were as new to the manufacturers as they were to the consumers, so the first generation of appliances could hardly have been described as reliable. The smiling woman in the animated film would certainly have needed to call the engineer again more than once to fix her new status symbol.

18 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Information From The Days When Colour TV Was New

  1. Kind of reminds me of my early television engineering book. Darn thing was as thick as a college textbook and cost as much. There’s a great deal that went into television from one end to another, surprising all of it worked as well as it did to begin with.

  2. Wow, amazing that so much relevant information is put into an 11 minute ‘film’. These old ‘movies’ usualy go very slow and take ages to explain the most simple of concepts, however, this one does it ‘spot-on’.

  3. I thought the British had to pay a license fee to use a TV. That would have subsidized the cost of changing standards.

    There is another advantage that Phase Alternate Lines (PAL) has over Never The Same Color (NTSC).

    When the signal has to travel any distance and passes parallel to the ground or other objects like tin roofs, the phase and therefore the color is distorted. With PAL each line has the opposite phase so the phase distortion cancels out in two lines so the average color is correct even if the resolution of color is reduced. A reduction in color resolution is not as bad as it may seem as human eyes have far greater contrast perception than color perception.

      1. The Brits still have to pay an annual ‘license’ unless they’re over 70 years old or can prove they don’t own a TV or radio. It doesn’t matter if they never listen to or watch any BBC programming. If they have a TV, radio, and/or smartphone, computer or other device with internet access that’s capable of downloading BBC content, they have to pay. TV tuner card in a computer that’s not online? That’s a television according to the BBC.

        It used to be a per-device license, less for monochrome TVs. Now they’ve changed to a household license, with up to a certain number of devices allowed.

        Stores and repair shops don’t need licenses to have TVs or radios on display with BBC content running.

        When the BBC initially launched their streaming app for smartphones, people without televisions could use it to watch BBC programs without paying a license fee. But after a year or so the Beeb put a stop to that and got smartphones and tablets included in the license rules.

        Some British politicians want to change the BBC licensing to make it “better”. Of course “better” for money grubbing politicians means *everyone under 70 years old* will pay the ‘license’, whether or not they own any TV, radio, computer, smartphone etc. “Community benefit”, just like how people who have never had children end up paying as much in school supporting taxes as families with lots of kids.

        I’m an American, have been to other countries but not the UK. Yet I’d still like to see the Brits have a bit of a revolt on the TV tax and force the BBC to have to be a private commercial operation.

        How free is a country where the *television network* has a de-facto police force that has often used thuggish tactics to enforce its tax collection?

        1. Here in Germany is the same. Do you own such a device ? you have to pay. Just because you “could” watch ARD&ZDF. A couple of years ago it was made compulsory, afaik. When you move, you have to register yourself with the city and your new address is passed to these “agencies”, and the bills come to your door. Preposterous :(. Here there is also a Church tax, you have to declare your religion when you move, they don’t tell you that you will pay any tax, they just discount it from your salary/tax return. “Opting out” of the Church costs around 30 €, no idea why.

        2. that is incorrect
          a TV licence in the UK is only required to for watching live tv or BBC programming
          http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/check-if-you-need-one/topics/Live-TV-and-how-you-watch-it

          “The Brits still have to pay an annual ‘license’ unless they’re over 70 years old or can prove they don’t own a TV or radio. It doesn’t matter if they never listen to or watch any BBC programming. If they have a TV, radio, and/or smartphone, computer or other device with internet access that’s capable of downloading BBC content, they have to pay. ” – is explicitly false. if you state that you do not watch live TV or BBC programming: no licence is necessary

      1. Correct, Television was switched off shortly after it was introduced in the UK due to the war. As a result there were very few TV sets in use at that time. However there were many B&W sets sold after the war, particularly in the 1950s.

        1. >Correct, Television was switched off shortly after it was introduced in the UK due to the war. As a result there were very few TV sets in use at that time. However there were many B&W sets sold after the war, particularly in the 1950s.

          Television was indeed switched off for the duration of WW2 though it wasn’t as some have said elsewhere done during a cartoon!

          https://www.transdiffusion.org/2005/10/31/tvoff

          ljones

    1. Didn’t everybody that went digital HD everywhere. So the Brit’s have done it twice. The early Dr. Who was seen in 405, and the invasion launched from under it’s blurry haze. They got rid of VHF we sorta didn’t. They had standards that included kids, we sold out. They wrote better and acted more to make it worthwhile.

      Color took 20 years to saturate in America, two for the DVD. I wonder how long it took in Britannia. Probably less.

  4. This is neat. I wish the credits were present on this. Who made it?. I like the fact that while this clip iis discussing the technical issues surrounding broadcast television, at the same time, it is demonstrating technical issues with 16mm film ( it’s splicy, scratched, a little dirty and has been misthreaded into a projector at least once) and the videotape it was transferred to. There is skew at the bottom, dropouts, and the chroma goes in and out. Great to watch.

    1. Through to about mid 80s it was hard to remember you owned a colour TV if you left it on BBC2 much, heck of a lot of programming was in black and white still. BBC1 you got your bobs worth.

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