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Culture

50 years of color TV in Germany

It had already been available in the US since 1954, but West Germany had to wait until 1967 for color TV broadcasts. Viewers long remained skeptical - but the new technology eventually caught on.

It happened on August 25, 1967 at 10:57 a.m. Then Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Willy Brandt introduced the new technology from West Germany at the Internationale Funkausstellung, through a televised presentation that began in black-and-white and ended in color. 

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1967: West Germany launches color TV

There was, however, a false start: Brandt was to launch the new technology by pressing a button, announcing in his famously deep voice: "In the hope of many peacefully colorful, but also excitingly colorful events, I will now give the start signal," as he set his fingers on a mushroom-shaped button. 

But it clearly wasn't the big read button itself that activated the color technology, and the picture turns to color seconds before the politician pushed the dummy. 

TV sets a luxury item at the beginning

Not that many people could have seen the failure, as there were only 5,800 televisions in the entire country that were able to display color at the time. From Berlin to Munich, people curious to witness the event had to look through the window of shops where the new television sets were sold.

Few people could afford to buy their own, as they cost between 2,000 and 4,000 marks in West Germany and installment purchases didn't exist at the time. To encourage people to buy them, stores left the new TV sets on during their closing hours.

The new glitter came as a shock

The first color TV show broadcast on this legendary day, August 25, was a popular game show called "Der Goldene Schuss," hosted by Vico Torriani.

Still from German TV show Der Goldene Schuss with host Vico Torriani in 1967 (picture-alliance/dpa/Giehr)

The first German TV show in color: "Der Goldene Schuss"

The entire studio displayed a strange artificial colorful world. Wearing thick make-up, the host's assistants danced through the studio dressed in glittering miniskirts. Torriani's black tuxedo was the only element offering a soothing break from the sudden overdose of color.

"I have to say, the switch from black-and-white to color was a shock," one outraged viewer let the station know.

A lot of effort for little program

With the new technology, cameramen and lighting technicians faced unexpected challenges.

"We had to take into consideration the costumes, the set and the make-up. It became particularly long to light the TV studio. We couldn't simply dim the spotlights because everything would get a red shimmer and the colors would be gone," recalls TV director Olaf Haas.  

"The flexibility we had with black-and-white recordings in the studio was gone," adds Haas, who directed some of the first color TV shows. Make-up artists also had to improvise a lot at the beginning. "There wasn't any make-up available for that back then. We had to try several combinations of colors and greys to find the optimal solution." 

Despite those efforts, the new color TV world certainly didn't appear natural and pleasant. Actress Heidi Kabel from the renowned Ohnesorg Theater in Hamburg, whose stagings were regularly broadcast on Saturday evenings in the 60s, recalls those broadcasts with horror: "We all looked like clowns with way too much make-up on. It was terrible for us."

Constant color fluctuations added to the frustration. Even TV hosts with properly made-up faces would switch from pale to green-yellow to deep red within seconds. The technology, based on the broadcasting of a rapid succession of images in three basic colors, still needed to be improved - even though 200 million marks had already been invested by the industry to develop it.

Read more: Beat-Club: when TV and music revolutionized German youth

Read more: Tatort: 10 rules for Germany's longest-running TV show

Stamp - 50 years of color TV in Germany (Bundesfinanzministerium)

The 50th anniversary is commemorated with a stamp

During the first years, four hours a day were broadcast in color. Consumers, however, remained skeptical, even though color TV had already been available in America since the beginning of the 1950s. "I would rather wait for the initial bugs to be solved before I buy a color TV," one visitor at the Funkaustellung said into the camera. "And for the sets to become cheaper too!"

Soccer World Cup pushed sales

The German PAL (Phase Alternating Line) system was developed by electrical engineer Walter Bruch at the company Telefunken in Hanover. Under his direction, German engineers modified the US and French broadcasting technologies introduced in the 50s. Years of complicated patent negotiations also delayed the launch of color TV in Germany.

In East Germany, viewers gained access to the technology on October 3, 1969, with the flag of the German Democratic Republic being the first image to be shown in color.

The East German state, however, preferred to use the French SECAM system for color broadcasting, following the standards used in Soviet states. Just like in West Germany, the costs for TV sets were prohibitive for East Germans.

Color TV sets didn't become widespread in German households until the 70s. They were meanwhile reasonably priced, and events such as the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and the soccer World Cup in 1974 drove sales: Everyone wanted to see the German national football team win in color.

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