Color Wars and CEOs
February 26th, 2013
Several weeks ago, I discussed the great RCA leader David Sarnoff, who in the 1920s and ‘30s, figured out how to get a new invention called radio into homes, cars, theaters and trains. Today Boeing’s embarrassing lithium battery problem makes me think of Sarnoff again. Clearly, the 787 Dreamliner was not ready for prime time when it started flying in 2011. Sarnoff would’ve given engineers more time to get it right.
In Lasting Lessons from the Corner Office, I tell the story of Sarnoff and the battle for color television in the 1940s and early ‘50s. The battle pit NBC (owned by RCA) vs. CBS. Two titans led their teams in the fight: Sarnoff and CBS’s chairman, a bon vivant named William S. Paley, who hob-nobbed with Picasso in the south of France. The FCC was the referee in this bout, for the agency would choose which corporation would have the right to set the standard for color television technology.
Though Sarnoff and Paley were both the sons of Russian immigrants, they were different sorts. Sarnoff trained as an engineer, worked with Marconi and earned the rank of brigadier general in World War II. Paley liked entertainment programming. He knew about Jack Benny, not about electrical jacks and capacitors. And so Sarnoff was appalled when he heard that Paley’s CBS engineers were moving at a faster pace to perfect color.
But Sarnoff noticed that the CBS model hosted a fatal flaw, a limitation that he couldn’t abide: CBS broadcasts were invisible to owners of black & white sets. They would see a blank screen. Sarnoff insisted that, while NBC broadcast in color, those people who kept their black & white models should also be able to watch the programming, even if it appeared in black & white. Sarnoff knew it would take longer to build dual-mode broadcasting. He was willing to wait and wouldn’t rush his product to market until his engineers perfected it. He spent 16-hour days at the RCA laboratory in Princeton.
But in 1951 the FCC looked at the competing technologies and declared CBS the winner. Tens of millions of research dollars were wasted. Paley rejoiced, and the RCA scientists were devastated.
Then a lucky break for Sarnoff. The Pentagon announces that color phosphors are a critical war material. The CBS assembly lines screech to a halt, and Sarnoff, like a boxer saved by the bell, gets a second chance. He rushes from his office atop RockefellerCenter to Princeton and camps out in the lab, not wanting to miss a moment of the reprieve. Given more time, the RCA scientists achieve a breakthrough: vivid color broadcasts that black & white owners can see in black & white.
Back to Paley at CBS. He orders a showdown, a side-by-side comparison of NBC vs. CBS color. His staffers carry two televisions onto a stage. Imagine the nervous CBS executives as their dominant chairman leans back in his chair waiting for the two competing televisions to warm up and begin to glow. He was testing a lifetime of their work. They had persuaded Paley to spend CBS nearly to bankruptcy to fund their technology.
Paley later wrote: “We watched in tense silence for fifteen minutes…There was a deadly pause before anyone would venture an opinion. I knew exactly what I thought. I stood up and said, ‘Gentlemen, I’ll be glad to speak first. I think the RCA camera has us beat’…No one spoke. So I walked out and that was the end.” The FCC soon reversed its decision and declared RCA the winner.
Thirty years later, Paley paid tribute to Sarnoff: “The way he refused to accept defeat. The way he kept coming back…to rally his people…the way he drove his scientists to perfect his system. No doubt about it, he was magnificent in color.”
Bob Hope had a different answer when asked how General Sarnoff won the color wars: “David Sarnoff stood behind the set with color crayons.”