Review of Bright Signals: A History of Color Television | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Bright Signals: A History of Color Television

Bright Signals: A History of Color Television
Susan Murray

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2018
320 pp., illus. 104 col. Trade, $US99.95; paper, $US26.95; eBook, $US26.99
ISBN: 9780822371212; ISBN: 9780822371304; ISBN: 9780822371700.

Reviewed by: 
Phil Ellis
September 2018

Susan Murray’s important intervention into television history focuses on how colour television (and importantly its development) impacted on “subjectivity and perception, aesthetics, the psychological power of color use, the play between the spectacular and the real, the assumptions that structure the production and reception of specific genres, and the power of television’s narrational and commercial agency” (p.2). Murray identifies a gap in television history where there has been a lack of interrogation into how pivotal colour television was to the emerging models of finance, operations, branding and marketing of television in the USA. In the book, she works chronologically from television’s early experiments (Baird in the UK; Ives in the USA), through to the period around 1970 which she identifies as the time of ‘normalisation’, when most networks had converted to colour, and most consumers in the USA owned colour television receivers, and each of Murray’s chapters are “organised around a particular issue or stage – for example, innovation, standardization, calibration, conversion, and global expansion” (p.6) within this timeframe.

The book succinctly identifies the various factors at play around the idea that colour television was “imagined and sold as a new way of seeing” (p.4), placing its technological innovation within a wider context of an American consumer culture of modernity. Of particular interest is the focus on how the development and regulation of the technology worked in parallel with what was effectively an unsure industry trying to come to terms with what this reshaped television image meant and was meant to mean for the consumer and producer from standardisation, regulation, through to a discussion of the genres that would most expose its value to the viewer, and consequently for the advertiser too.

Murray proposes that the book is divided into a first half that deals with the development of the colour technology itself (standards, colour management, bandwidth, reliability, and relative value etc.), including detail of its early promotion for experimental use in student medical procedures, whereby it “provided students with close-up views of live surgeries … while also representing the colors on and in the body” (p.196), perhaps mirroring the early internet’s relationship with military use. The second half, Murray proposes, “brings that history and conceptual framing to bear on moments in more traditional cultural and industrial histories” (p.7), within which she discusses how viewers were invited to immerse themselves in the image in a sensory experience of stimulation, drawing comparison with claims made for the image by contemporary 3D image proponents – perhaps another example of a circularity of technology, its uses and how they are marketed.

Murray develops the discussion around the impact on the viewer in later chapters, exploring how colour television was promoted as being immersive and intimate, thus increasing a sense of reality and immediacy, and then consequently how this promoted a unique power for colour television, creating a psychological hold on viewers; a power that resulted in a captive and captivated audience, and sold to advertisers as such to engage them with the colour television project – she also covers how colour training was developed for advertisers and sponsors, linking back to the way in which an unstable technology was harnessed and how tensions and aspirations were overcome to become a stable technology. Related, Murray then develops the relationship between marketing and development, concentrating on investment in its infrastructure, conversion from monochrome (both for the networks and the consumers’ receivers), and how it was consequently ‘sold’ to the public imagination as sensational from a psychological aspect, and through the physical aspect of dealer and network promotions - Chapter Four is a fascinating history of a diverse range of tactics employed to this end. Murray concludes this interrelationship between technical development and the viewer by exploring how colour television was marketed through television genres, especially colour documentaries that made claims for the ‘real’ in their mediation, focusing on art, travel, tourism, and nature (citing Jacques Cousteau documentaries) – the sense of the immersive and being present were paramount as selling devices.

The key argument for the reviewer in the book is how colour television “arrived with cultural and industrial complexity” which created “tension and instability” (p.6) about what it was and was to become, and found its way to the aforementioned ‘normalisation’ through a series of hurdles and potentials, a radical shift from the representational nature of early black and white television, into possibilities that altered its industry and consequentially cultural industries, in its wake.