Review of Bright Signals: A History of Color Television

Review by James Altman

Bright Signals: A History of Color Television. Susan Murray. Durham University Press, 2018. 308 pages. 978-0-8223-7170-0, pp. v-308.

Susan Murray is a noted scholar of numerous aspects of American television culture and its impact on popular culture. In Bright Signals: A History of Color Television, she examines what she considers to be an understudied aspect of television history, the evolution of color television. Murray reckons that the often tumultuous transition of the emerging medium from black and white to color involves much than technological advancements and artistic considerations. Indeed, for better or worse, it embodies wide-ranging changes in American cultural attitudes from the post-WWII era to the early days of the Vietnam War. Patriotism, consumerism, conformity, and counterculture each played their part in the eventual changeover, together with a mix of marketing and influence peddling heady enough to make a reader dizzy. Her scholarly mission is not to extoll any supposed innate supremacy of color over black and white. Instead, she wishes to understand the cultural shifts that led to the switch.

Bright Signals comprises six roughly chronological chapters. Each chapter ostensibly chronicles the innovations, frustrations, and machinations propelling television during particular years. Practically speaking, thoughtful insights and stimulating discussions recur so frequently that the chapters function as “story arcs” in a successful television series. Exciting and unexpected connections between television history, cinematic history, technology, morality, and geopolitics emerge at every turn. This study concerns not just the maturation of an entertainment medium. Rather, it details the transformation of our wider culture into something resembling what we know today.

In the opening “arc,” she expertly analyzes the earliest attempts at color television. False starts by such luminaries as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla are given much stimulating discussion. Likewise, the fact that their failures are more widely known than the successes of numerous lesser-known individuals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union are discussed in terms of the concept of “celebrity,” both then and now. The brief heyday of mechanical color television is brilliantly analyzed, although that analysis is more technical than the average reader might like.

The unifying “plot line” of Bright Signals is color itself. The development, standardization, distribution, and adoption of color, not just in television, but in every aspect of postwar popular culture, provide this book its reason for being. Technical challenges in the process of colorizing television, which the motion picture industry never encountered, are expertly framed against the backdrop of a nation hungry for vibrancy following the dark days of World War II. The notion that black and white television “embodied” what we think of as “the greatest generation,” while color “heralded the arrival” of their baby boomer children receives much thoughtful discussion. Complicated discourse about what sorts of programming would work best in color, as opposed to black and white, are expertly unpacked for the reader’s benefit. The use of color in travel documentaries promoting American culture to the rest of the world and vice versa is thoughtfully discussed. Likewise, early color “extravaganzas,” such as live performances of beloved classics like “Cinderella” and highly touted sporting events, are thoughtfully analyzed in terms of what adding, or taking away, an element like color can do in terms of storytelling and popular perception.

The transition of existing television “infrastructure” to accommodate color forms the main “subplot” of the book. The fight to establish standards for color broadcasting and production receives extraordinary analysis. Although this analysis is, again, much more technical than the average reader might expect, it comes in small enough doses as to be understandable. The means, both fair and foul, that the major networks, and their corporate partners, CBS and Zenith or NBC and RCA, attempted to sway the FCC toward standards that favored them, which is thoughtfully examined. Likewise, the much less effective efforts of the then-fledgling ABC and the now nearly forgotten DuMont network are analyzed in terms of changing consumer tastes and values throughout the era, including the notion of “survival of the fittest” and all that that entails. Industry heavyweights, like Walt Disney, make their will known on virtually every page.

Those interested in television, electronic media, and storytelling will find Bright Signals: A History of Color Television a pleasure to read. Those interested in the power of marketing to shape popular attitudes, and, thereby, governmental policy will also find the book deeply engrossing.

 

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