Post contributed by Blake Beaver, a graduate student intern for the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History.
A decade-plus institutional battle occurred between United States television networks, set manufacturers, and governmental agencies over implementing a technical color standard for TV. The National Television Standards Committee (NTSC)’s second standard, implemented in 1953, included color, allowing color television to compete with black-and-white in manufactured sets and programming. Finally, in the early 1970s, color television sales overtook those of black-and-white sets, and all three major television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) produced and aired color programs. However, several scares about the safety of color television sets from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s complicated the technology’s hard-won prominence. The radiation levels of color TV sets formed one primary concern. As Susan Murray documents in her history of color television, the panic was “likely exaggerated in its scope and potential dangers,” yet:
It succeeded in bringing to the surface anxieties about the connection between vision problems and television screens, a more general concern over the possibility of radiation leaks from everyday technological objects, a growing mistrust in science toward the decade’s end, and an underlying fear of nuclear war (Murray 2018, 247).
The Rubenstein Library’s recently acquired Consumer Reports Archives shed light on a second safety scare that plagued color television, previously undocumented in Murray and other scholars’ histories: fires.
Relevant manuscripts from the Technical Department include correspondence with parties as diverse as television consumers, set manufacturers, government agencies, and legal firms, in addition to enclosed reports and ephemera like the National Commission on Product Safety’s press release from January 27, 1970, which publicized the color TV fire hazards. These manuscripts extend our understanding of cultural anxieties about color television beyond the radiation problem.
The collection’s first mention of the fire hazard controversy appears in a letter from consumer Frederick P. Schmitt to the Consumers Union on October 16, 1969. Schmitt attached a clipping of a Newsday article, “U.S. Is Checking TV Fire Danger,” published the same day, which reported on a presidential commission to investigate the fire hazards of color TV sets.
Schmitt complained to the union that the government protected “the alleged culprits” by omitting the manufacturers’ names and inquired whether the union knew of “these potential killers” so he might prevent the “risk” of “danger” and “possibly death” from his color set. Unfortunately, per the response from Monte Florman, Associate Technical Director at the Consumers Union, the presidential commission refused to release information to the union and the public.
The National Commission on Product Safety’s release on the matter advised that “approximately 22 million color TV sets” were in use at the time and provided a staggering statistic about the disproportionate flammability of color television sets compared with their black-and-white counterparts: “a smoke and fire incident ratio” of “about 40 to 1.”
Although the commission’s press release applauded “the industry for its efforts” to ameliorate the hazards, not all television set manufacturers handled the controversy in this manner. We observe this fact in the collection’s most extensive exchange about the fire controversy, a series of letters from 1970 between consumer Melvyn L. Marks of Silver Springs, Maryland, Sylvania Entertainment Products, and the Consumers Union. Sylvania’s lackluster response to Marks, whose 21LC 28 M set experienced a fire in its “high voltage flyback transformer,” speaks to manufacturers’ inconsistent approach to such a crisis.
After repeatedly reaching out to Sylvania about their intentions to “correct or pay for correction of these faulty units,” which “other companies have publicized that they will,” Sylvania subjected Marks to the rigamarole of numerous follow-up communications and a comprehensive service history. Marks signs off in a particularly zesty follow-up, “Awaiting your long overdue reply.”
In addition to consumers, insurance companies and their legal representatives communicated with Consumer Reports. In a letter dated June 3, 1970, San Francisco-based attorney Warren Sullivan wrote the union on behalf of his client, Balboa-Newport Insurance Company, seeking the union’s assistance in “[recovering] [a] loss of $11,000, which occurred by reason of a fire to [their] assured’s home” and which they claim was caused by the client’s Sears & Roebuck “colored television set” catching fire or exploding “in the middle of the night while the set was in the ‘turned off’ position.”
These concerns over the flammability of color television sets continued into the mid-1970s. Tragically, some of these fires proved fatal. In 1973, a memo from the newly formed United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), launched a year prior by the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), announced “a possible fire hazard in 12,000 Zenith 19-inch table model color television sets,” in one instance causing the death of “several members of the family.’
This brief glimpse into an overlooked scandal in U.S. television history is just one example of the diverse research trajectories that the Consumer Reports Archives facilitate. In addition to consumer electronics, the Technical Department records collection includes materials on testing procedures, methods, data, and evaluations for appliances, automobiles, chemicals, foods, public services, special projects, and textiles. The collection is available at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, and the finding aid can be found here.
Consumer Product Safety Commission, memorandum. September 13, 1973. Washington D.C. Consumer Reports. Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Melvyn L. Marks to Sylvania Entertainment Productions Division, letter. February 16, 1970. Silver Springs, M.D. Consumer Reports, Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Melvyn L. Marks to Sylvania Entertainment Productions Division, letter. May 18, 1970. Silver Springs, M.D. Consumer Reports, Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Susan Murray. 2018. Bright Signals: A History of Color Television. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
National Commission on Product Safety, press release. “Commission Releases Information on Color TV Hazards.” January 27, 1970. Washington D.C. Consumer Reports. Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Warren Sullivan to Consumer Reports, letter. June 3, 1970. San Francisco, C.A. Consumer Reports. Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.