How Racial Prejudices Determined Your TV's Colour Spectrum

By James O Malley on at

Before there was the girl with the chalkboard and creepy clown doll, there was Patty Painter and Marie McNamara, two women who were literally employed to be "Miss Color TV". And this, surprisingly, explains how there has been an inherent racial bias in the technology going back to when colour TV was first invented.

The Atlantic magazine has published an absolutely fascinating story story of the rivalry in the US between CBS and and RCA, which while Europe was busy fighting a war, the two companies were locked in a war of their own over which system would form the basis for colour TV - a system that lasted right up until the US switched over to digital TV in 2009. (It became as NTSC, an acronym that will no-doubt be familiar to gamers.)

In that war, CBS won the first battle with its mechanical system that modified existing TV cameras using filters, but which was incompatible with existing monochrome TVs. Ultimately though, the war was lost to RCA, which used a new type of TV camera, with three separate camera tubes. While the output on screen was initially inferior in terms of results compared to CBS, its all-electric system made it easier to manufacture and crucially backwards compatible with existing monochrome sets.

In the piece, we learn how both of the women who claimed the title of "Miss Color TV" were used to calibrate camera equipment for colour. They were required to stay live on TV during many tests so that engineers could figure out how to make sure skin tones appeared correctly.

This is where things get interesting, as it turns out that TV technology has until relatively recently had an almost subconscious racial bias towards white people. Similar calibration techniques were used for decades - always with white models, and camera equipment was tweaked so that tones on white faces could be picked out more easily. Apparently when black faces appeared in the same shots as white ones, often lighting and make-up would have to be employed to make sure the person on screen is fully visible. Apparently similar occurred with photographic film too, with Kodak's chemical recipe being optimised for white faces.

Mercifully, things are better now as modern technology has enabled cameras with a greater dynamic range. It makes for a fascinating read, so be sure to check the full long-read out. [The Atlantic]