Monday, January 16, 2017

From Black and White to Color: Which Shows Changed Most?

Much has been written here and elsewhere about the cultural transformation of television in the 1960s. One change that receives less attention is the transition during the decade from broadcasting in black and white to color.

It was certainly a big deal at the time, as evidenced by those prominent “In Color” bumpers preceding many shows that started that way or made the switch.  

Today it is viewed as a natural progression, like the more recent evolution from standard definition to a high definition display. However, I’m not sure the change can be dismissed as merely cosmetic. Not in every case, anyway. Several shows, including many classics, debuted in black and white and finished in color. Watching them now it’s a way to instantly date each episode within the run, but with some series it also affects the viewing experience – sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.

Lost in Space (1965-1968)
Lost in Space is one of two series where the change to color coincided with a change in dramatic tone. 

The series’ first season, aired in black-and-white, featured relatively straightforward science fiction stories. 

But a lighter, more camp approach was adopted in subsequent seasons, and since the stories were literally more colorful it seemed fitting they were broadcast that way as well. Color made the Day-Glo planets visited by the Robinsons more visually appealing – but black and white was advantageous for masking the show’s budget limitations for sets, props and special effects. 

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970)
The pink harem outfit worn by Barbara Eden is indisputably among the most iconic costumes in television, and black and white could never do it justice. 

But that’s all viewers saw in the show’s first season, when the outfit also sported additional accessories to conceal Eden’s pregnancy – a situation particularly troublesome to the network since Jeannie and her master were cohabitating outside of marriage. Season two debuted in color, which helped to cement its main character in popular culture. 

It also prompted a change from the season one black-and-gold Jeannie bottle to one in bright metallic purple. And it made it easier to tell Jeannie apart from her lookalike sister. 

The Fugitive (1963-1967)
For its first three seasons, The Fugitive aired in black and white, and that seemed fitting for a somber series with a grim protagonist running for his life through a hostile world. 

Many of its best episodes like “Search in a Windy City” and “Brass Ring” had a film noir quality fostered by the light and shadow of black and white cinematography. When the series switched to color for its fourth and final season, Dr. Kimble’s life didn’t get any better, yet it still appeared a little less dark and dangerous.

The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
It’s remembered now as a wholesome, sincere but slightly silly children’s series – unless you’ve seen the first 26 episodes, which were rarely syndicated for decades and not just because they were in black and white. More than dozen people are gunned down in “Czar of the Underworld.” In “The Evil Three,” a wheelchair-bound woman is pushed down a flight of stairs. But as with Lost in Space the switch to color, along with a new kid-friendly sponsor in Kellogg’s Cereal, coincided with a switch to gentler adventures. And since superheroes have always been in color since the earliest days of comic books, it was a fitting addition.  

What’s My Line? (1950-1967)
In its original prime-time network incarnation, What’s My Line brimmed with sophistication, a trait not commonly associated with game shows. With its distinguished panel of journalists, publishers, critics and Broadway stars, each episode played like a New York society get-together, hosted by the urbane John Charles Daly. 

That these shows aired in black and white seems appropriate, as their civility and manners belong to a bygone era. When the series switched to syndication and to color, that quality was lost. It also didn’t help that Bennett Cerf was replaced by Soupy Sales. 

Dark Shadows (1966-1971)
Black and white was ideal for the gothic horror served by Dark Shadows after the introduction of Barnabas Collins. 

The famous moment when a kidnapped Maggie Evans, dressed in Josette’s wedding gown, slowly descends the Old House staircase, would not be as effective in color. However, there were some advantages once the switch was made, such as the showcase of period costumes in the 1795 and 1897 flashback story arcs – and Angelique’s hypnotic blue eyes. 

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)
Only the first episode of Hogan’s Heroes was filmed in black and white. Having just viewed it again I believe the series’ fate would have been very different had the show’s creators not opted for color (a decision made to increase syndication value). When “Germany, 1942” appears on screen at the start of the episode, followed by stock shots of a prisoner of war camp with barbed-wire fences and guard towers, I was stunned by how much it resembled the newsreel footage of the real places. 

Even when the comedy begins, it’s hard to shake that initial sense of foreboding. The series’ setting generated controversy back in its day – had the show remained in black and white, I wonder if it would have survived its first season. 


  1. No, What's My Line's switch to color and jump to syndication were not simultaneous. The original version switched to color in 1966, and the tone there stayed pretty much the same. (However, all that exist of those color episodes are black and white kinescopes.)

    1. It would be very interesting (and probably somewhat jarring) to see how those looked! But I still think this incarnation of the series fits into that more genteel era associated with black and white TV.

  2. Between 1966 and 1970 a lot of Primetime TV's elite always started out with opening their shows IN COLOR,and that was mostly with ABC-TV shows between these years,and viewers watching ABC shows in 1966,67 and 70 would always see things like,"VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA"-IN COLOR! or "COMBAT!"-IN COLOR" or "THE TIME TUNNEL-IN COLOR!" while NBC primetime shows were always introduced by The Peacock in the late 60s,while CBS-TV shows opened with "CBS presents this show IN COLOR" wither their TV shows and the Variety programs,,all part of Color Television in the late 1960s!

  3. To begin:

    Kellogg's was the sponsor of TV's Superman from its start in '52.
    Indeed, this was a carryover from radio, where Kellogg and its ad agency - Leo Burnett here in Chicago - effectively underwrote the whole show.
    Why the first season was so grim: National Periodical (what DC Comics was called back then) wanted their first TV show to be aimed at an more grownup audience, which meant putting it on in prime time wherever and whenever possible. Here in Chicago, which was the first US market to pick up Superman in September of '52, ran the show Friday night at 8 pm; other cities around the country followed suit.
    This was when the anti-crime-comics movement started gaining traction, and Kellogg's (which was putting up most of the money up front) sent the word down to "clean up" the series content, starting with season 2 (still in B/W).
    The next season, Kellogg's convinced National that Superman ought to gear itself to Frosted Flakes's target demographic, i.e. kids; good-bye prime time, hello kiddie humor.
    The switch to color wasn't really a factor at that point; National was taking a future chance on color eventually taking hold (which was still a few years away).

  4. How much of this was due to the Batman effect? Having been only 3 in 1966, I don't remember, but I think I've read that some of the change in tone (especially on Lost in Space) was due to the popularity of Batman. Great post!

    1. I've read that too, Jack - and June Lockhart also noted the connection when I interviewed her many moons ago.

  5. The Fugitive also changed producers in its color season, and lost its morally complex scripts. That, combined with the color, resulted in a more shallow,action-oriented show.