America Is Finally Pulling the Plug on Black-and-White Television Sets


You probably have never heard of Bruce DuMont, but he was a celebrity in his Chicago neighborhood back in 1952 when he was 8 years old. His family owned a television set.

The picture was a bit fuzzy, and all in black and white. But it was “the hottest thing” around, and DuMont recalls that people came from all over for a look-see.

DuMont is head of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago now and literally part of television history. But the vehicle for those early days of television--the black-and-white set--has almost disappeared.


Except for miniature models, black-and-white TVs have faded from view, their sales shrinking as fast as the size of their screens. The sets rarely are seen even in discount stores anymore, and prisons are among the few remaining customers.

Many of the nation’s biggest retail chains, such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Kmart Corp., don’t sell any traditional black-and-white sets. The last time Sears sold them was in 1990, and then it was just for the Christmas season when the chain offered a 12-inch model for $79 to drum up customer traffic.

Stores that do sell black-and-white TVs usually won’t sell anything bigger than the small models, with screen sizes typically ranging from a few inches to 7 inches, and the same holds true for electronic appliance chains.

“That’s really a dead market,” Pat Ruggieri, a marketing manager for Sony Corp., said of larger black-and-white sets.

Emerson Radio Corp. of North Bergen, N.J., still markets a 12-inch black-and-white set made in factories in the Far East, but a company executive, noting the razor-thin profits, thinks the future of the medium is anything but black and white.

“Nobody really likes the business anymore,” Executive Vice President Marino Andriani said. “I don’t think you’ll see a day where you couldn’t sell a black-and-white set. But will people continue to make them? That’s another question.”


The Electronic Industries Assn. estimates that nearly all of America’s 94 million households have at least one color TV set, and that about half still have some kind of black-and-white set around.

While the trade group projects that more than 20 million color TVs will be shipped in the United States this year, the estimate for black-and-white sets is only about 1 million.

The end of black-and-white broadcasting was on the horizon as early as 40 years ago. Limited color telecasts began in 1953, and the television networks shifted to color in the mid-1960s.

“At the beginning, it was very strange,” said Julius Barnathan, who recently retired as an ABC executive after 37 years. “Actors didn’t realize how much additional makeup they would need. And we couldn’t quite get yellow. They had to paint a different color to come up with yellow.”

Color brought new opportunities for programmers and advertisers, who could use graphics more creatively.

The NBC peacock was a symbol of this new world, and viewers were amazed by the hues they saw in shows such as “Bonanza” or the spectacular Rose Bowl Parade.


In sporting events, viewers suddenly could identify teams by the colors of their jerseys.

“You think of baseball in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and you think in black-and-white,” said Ron Simon, curator of television for the Museum of Television & Radio in New York.

“Then people discovered home movies in color. You see the players in color. You see the grass in color. It’s a whole different sensation of what the stadium looked like. It’s almost like two different levels of experience.”

The roots of black-and-white television go back to the 19th Century with the discovery of radio waves. Scientists eventually tinkered with systems to transmit pictures and, in 1929, a Russian immigrant named Vladimir Zworykin demonstrated a television system complete with a camera and picture tube.

After several years of experimental telecasts in Great Britain and America, RCA Corp. installed TVs in 150 homes in the New York area and began regular broadcasts through its subsidiary, NBC, in 1936.

The number of sets in the country climbed from about 10,000 near the end of World War II to about 6 million by 1950.

In those early years, sets were more like a piece of furniture--big, wooden cabinets with tiny screens, resembling somewhat the radios of the day.


“It tried to fit into people’s lives by looking familiar,” said Larry Bird, curator of a TV exhibit a couple years ago at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

“There was an uneasiness of where to put this thing,” Bird said. “But pretty soon, the arrangement of domestic space turned toward the set, whether it was on or off.”

For some who rose to stardom during TV’s early days, the notion that Americans were watching black-and-white television rather than color made little difference.

Milton Berle, television’s first star, says simply: “Funny is funny.”

“Color isn’t going to enhance the performance or the script,” said Berle, who entertained viewers on “The Texaco Star Theater” from 1948 to the mid-1950s.

Everett Greenbaum, a writer for “The Andy Griffith Show” and “MASH,” agreed. He recalls the first time he saw one of his products in color, a “Mr. Peepers” show, starring Wally Cox.

“I remember the first five minutes. We were astonished,” Greenbaum said. “But after six minutes, we realized it was a lousy script, and that’s what we concentrated on.”


Even if black-and-white sets go by the wayside, black-and-white programming still remains popular and, in some cases, is viewed as avant-garde rather than outdated.