How colour TV crossed an ocean before it arrived in UK homes

The first colour transatlantic satellite transmission took place on July 16, 1962, but it would be five more years before colour television was a regular feature in our homes.

We take for granted the ability to broadcast or stream on any device in high definition and watch the kind of 4K coverage which this year has been prominent for the first time ever at a World Cup.

But a little over 50 years ago, the project to bring colour television into the living rooms of Britain was a massive undertaking, and one in which BT's forebear, the GPO, was very much involved.

In 1962, a full five years before BBC2 broadcast the first colour pictures to UK audiences, the first colour transmissions were being beamed across the Atlantic via satellite. The brand new Earth Station at Goonhilly, built and operated by the GPO, played an important role in this breakthrough.

[Read more: How a satellite dish called Arthur brought the moon landings home]

On July 16, less than two weeks after the first active communications satellite Telstar-1 was launched into orbit, colour pictures sent from Goonhilly and were successfully received by the US earth station in Andover, Maine. During the first pass (orbit 60) the pictures appeared “washed out”. However, on the 61st orbit, Andover reported: "Colour— good; picture quality— excellent".

Goonhilly - BT Archives

The GPO had worked with on the project with BBC research teams, many of whom were already busy testing the tech necessary to bring the colour revolution to UK homes. Here’s how it all unfolded:

TV pioneer John ‘Logie’ Baird had demonstrated television transmission showing natural colour reproduction as far back as 1928. His mechanical system used a spinning disk that was split into three sections. As it span, the disk scanned the images pushed through red, blue and green filters (RBG) once per rotation. By uniting those three components in a single image, he was able to create a spectrum of colours.

[Read more: In celebration of John Logie Baird]

The United States was the first country to begin colour broadcasting, in 1954, with the colour TV sets going on sale during the same year. Following the trials of various formats, regulators in the US approved an RCA developed system, which became known as the NTSC (the standard used in the satellite experiment in 1962). It was far from perfect and was unkindly dubbed 'Never Twice the Same Colour' in the early days. However, this analogue system improved and remained dominant in the most of the Americas until the relatively recent digital takeover.

In Britain, the BBC had been trialling colour solutions since the resumption of TV services after World War II. The Beeb initially experimented with the NTSC standard around the same time as the US adoption, with the hope of adapting it to the standard British 405-line standard. Indeed, in October 1954, “the first 'compatible' type of colour television picture was radiated from the medium-power transmitter at Alexandra Palace”, wrote the BBC Director of Engineering Sir Harold Bishop.

The Beeb eventually opted for a new system called Phase Alternation Line, or PAL. This system had been developed in Germany by television engineer Walter Bruch and used 625 horizontal lines to create frames, which refreshed 25 times per second. It offered a more detailed picture than NTSC, better colour and contrast reproduction and a more stable image overall.

However, it wasn’t until March 1966 that the BBC unveiled plans to begin colour broadcasts, with Postmaster General Tony Benn making the announcement in the House of Commons.

David Attenborough, Controller of BBC2 since the launch of the channel in April 1964, oversaw the roll-out of colour broadcasts. He pointed out that a lot of BBC shows were already being produced in colour, but broadcast in B&W. At the time he said: "We have to remember that 95% of people initially will not be seeing these programmes in colour, they'll be seeing them in black and white. The shows that BBC2 will be scheduling will be exciting new shows in black and white. They'll be that much more exciting and newer in colour."

[Read more: What is Ultra HD and 4K TV?]

July also marks another important colour TV anniversary in Britain. On July 1, 1967, BBC2 showed four hours of live tennis from the Wimbledon Championships, representing the first ever colour broadcast in the UK. Colour coverage continued during the tournament, supplemented by 30-minute highlight shows in the evening. Attenborough recalls the reactions from some of the first viewers: “Do you know you can see whether they are having lemonade or orangeade when they drink?!” one remarked.

Unfortunately, the footage from this first broadcast did not survive. However, the 1967 Gentlemen’s Singles Final, also broadcast in colour, still exists in the BBC Archives. Australia’s John Newcombe defeated Wilhelm Bunger 6–3, 6– 1, 6–1.

BBC Two was the first channel in Europe to regularly broadcast colour content. It was chosen because it operated on a higher frequency than BBC1, allowing a better picture. From an initial offering of four hours of colour programming per week, by the end of the following year nearly every programme was in colour by the end of the following year.

The roll out of colour TV across the UK happened gradually, because each region required new transmitters in order to broadcast the programming. Black and white TV used 405-line VHF (very high frequency) and colour used 625-line (ultra high frequency).

The BBC introduced the colour TV Licence on January 1, 1968. It cost £10, which was twice as expensive as the £5 black and white license. At this time renting a colour TV receiver cost £8, while buying a TV outright was around £300.

An Evening With Petula, featuring a Petula Clark concert from the Royal Albert Hall, was the first colour programme shown on BBC1 on November 15, 1969. It aired at midnight as it marked the commencement of the channel’s license to broadcast in colour, which was awarded by the Postmaster General. Colour broadcasts of Star Trek, Dixon of Dock Green, The Harry Secombe Show and Match of the Day could also be seen on that day. The first colour game was Liverpool vs West Ham from Anfield.

November 15, 1969, also marked the first time all three UK channels (BBC1, BBC2 and ITV) all broadcast programming in colour simultaneously.

In 1969 there were only 200,000 TV sets in the UK, but adoption grew quickly and, by the early 1970s, 12 million households in the UK had colour TV licenses. It wasn’t until 1975 that colour TVs finally outsold B&W options in Britain.

The roll-out of colour TV came just too late for England’s 1966 World Cup triumph. However, the 1970 tournament was both the first to be broadcast in colour, and the first to be broadcast live across the Atlantic via the aforementioned satellites.

The United Kingdom didn’t fully adopt colour television until 1976, when the last remaining regional provider BBC East (Norwich) made the switch for their locally produced broadcasts.

From overseeing the explosion of colour in UK homes Attenborough’s nature shows have since pioneered a number of significant television advancements; from high-definition, to 3D, and now 4K titles like Planet Earth II. Nice one, Sir David.

As recently as 2017 – 50 years on from the first colour broadcasts in the UK – there were still 8,000 black and white TVs in operation, according to TV Licensing. It’s even still possible to buy a black and white TV License. They’re £50.50 (paid in full), compared to the £150.50 for a colour license. Before you get any ideas, you still need a colour license to watch the iPlayer!

Read more: Key inventions in modern TV technology

Visit BT Archives to find out more about BT's role in the UK's telecommunications history

Main photo credit: By Archives New Zealand [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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