When Israel Erased Color From Television Broadcasts

Feb 10, 2021 0 comments

The first television broadcast in Israel was black and white, but unlike most nations, it wasn’t due to the lack of technology to broadcast in color. As a matter of fact, when television first came to Israel in 1968, the world was already switching to color broadcast. But Israeli authorities were not sure. They thought color broadcast was a frivolous expense that should best be avoided. So despite having the capability to broadcast in color, Israel’s only national channel deliberately erased color from all their programs for more than twenty years, even from those they purchased or received from abroad.

vintage tv

Photo: Stephen Monterroso/Unsplash

Television came to Israel under a shroud of doubts and apprehension. The state founding fathers perceived television as a threat; they feared it would change the political, social and cultural characteristics of the young state. They felt that television broadcasts would put unnecessary economic pressure upon the state, and the mass buying of television sets would be an economic burden upon the population as well. Television, they argued, was a luxury that suited only wealthy and economically settled states.

The government also feared that television and western shows would dilute Hebrew culture and change people’s political views. Furthermore, television would reduce the amount of time people spent reading, going to the theater, and participating in social activities, thereby threatening traditional norms and family life.

Politicians delayed introducing television for as long as possible, until their need was widely felt during the 1967 conflict with Arab. The absence of a central broadcasting system meant that news about the war could not be quickly disseminated among the eager citizens. Secondly, the government realized they needed a tool to combat Arab propaganda. Many Palestinians living in the occupied territories owned television sets through which they received programs from the Arab countries, and Jordan was beginning to broadcast news in Hebrew for an Israeli audience. Israeli authorities decided that they could not afford to leave its public exposed exclusively to broadcasts from hostile neighbors. Only a state-controlled Israeli television channel could offer a counterattack in this psychological warfare. Thus, on May 2 1968, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority launched its first public broadcast—that year’s Independence Day march.

Related: Letters Q, W, And X Were Once Illegal in Turkey

Israel’s first television channel, called Channel One, broadcasted in black and white, even though color broadcast was already a world-wide technological convention. In the US, all the three major broadcast networks, NBC, ABC and CBS, were airing full color prime time schedules, and public broadcasting networks like NET used color for a majority of their programming. In 1955, twenty thousand color sets were purchased in the US, and in 1966, this figure had passed the 5 million mark. By 1972, the number of color television sets sold in the US exceeded black-and-white sales, and more than fifty percent of television households in the US had a color set.

In the UK, the first regular color broadcast began in 1967 by the BBC. Color broadcasting began in Japan in 1960, and in the Soviet Union in 1967. As broadcasting convention shifted towards color, networks realized that it was uneconomical to upgrade black and white broadcasting systems into color as it cost more than the initial investment in black and white equipment. As a result, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Conference of 1972 recommended that all new television services should be equipped with color facilities.

Although the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) did invest in color equipment, political pressure forced them to broadcast in back and white. When Israeli television started buying the rights to many American and British TV series and movies that were filmed in color, the government ordered the broadcasting authority to erase the color information from the signal so that receivers displayed back and white images.

NTSC TV signal

A NTSC TV signal with different parts of the waveform labelled. Image credit: ohmbrew.net

The government suggested that the broadcasting network should remove the color synchronization component called the Colorburst, in the absence of which the receiver is unable to decide how to superimpose the colors over the images. As a result, the television set discards the color information and displays only black and white images. The instrument the IBA used to erase color was branded the ‘eraser’ or mechikon.

Soon after its introduction, special television sets with anti-mekhikon device became available on the market. This device reinstalled the Colorburst phase signal allowing the receiver display color pictures. The only trouble was the viewer had to turn a knob to adjust the colors every 15 minutes or less. According to some estimates, nine out of every ten buyers bought a color television set fitted with the anti-mekhikon device.

The Israeli government sought to dissuade people from flocking into electronic stores. An activist opposing color television wrote in Israel’s leading newspaper Maariv that abandoning their regular sets in favor of color sets would be an “economic disaster” that a poor country as theirs could not afford. To this, the vice minister of finance added that a color picture tube consumed five times more electricity than a regular black and white tube, which would increase electricity consumption by many folds.

Professor Shelomo Avineri issued a cautionary warning against the pursuance of accessories of convenience:

If you bring colour television to the country, it will mean that so and so thousands of families, which might have purchased a bed for each child at home – or bought a book for the children from time to time – will be under strong pressure to spend this money – a lot of money, thousands of liras, to purchase a colour set.

The Vice Prime Minister also echoed these sentiments:

I have no doubt that many families, which have no money for necessities will sell their properties, will take loans and will become entangled in order to buy a colour set and not lag behind those that have the ability to purchase such a set.

Some warned of even more dire consequence:

Who will guarantee us that the pursuit of colour sets – as a status symbol – will not bring greater expansion of violent crime? Those who cannot afford to spend from their salary – or from their welfare income – 10,000 liras, some of them might take part in looting and robbery or mere stealing.

Advocates of color television argued that the claim that color broadcasting would deepen social inequality didn’t held water since it could be applied on all fields of consumption, such as luxury cars. Would the government ban luxury cars then?

One columnist was critical of the government’s stand on suppressing technological progress:

It is known that Israeli television was always required to erase the colour so that the public will see only a black and white picture, like those that the government sees. This government serves some affluent people, who see themselves as the guardians of the poor. These guardians have decided that it is forbidden to oppress the little the poor have. It is forbidden to seduce the poor with goods that cost a lot of money. Since he is poor, he doesn’t have the money to be entertained – he must sit at home, watch television, and think that the world is as gray as sackcloth.

Although the government’s primary argument behind the erasure of color was to reduce inequality and cost, all it did was to increase expense on both ends. An average color television cost 50,000 liras, and another 4,000 for
the anti-eraser device so that viewers could enjoy color programs. This arrangement of first removing color and then adding it back was ridiculous, as one writer noted:

Israeli television buys colour films at full price. The technicians erase the colour and this probably also costs something. The Israeli consumer buys a colour set and ‘anti-eraser’ … and receives the broadcasts in colour. It costs more both to the state and to the consumer – only the companies earn easy money.

The Israeli government allowed color transmissions from time to time, such as the November 1977 live color coverage of the Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat’s visit to Israel, and again in March 1979 during the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

By the late 1970s, public pressure on the issue of color transmissions mounted, and in 1981, the government allowed the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Israeli Educational Television to film their own regular productions in color. It would take another two years before color broadcast became a regularity. By then, Israelis had spent more than 400 million liras on anti-eraser devices which became useless when the IBA stopped erasing color and moved to a full color schedule.

# Oren Soffer, The eraser and the anti-eraser: the battle over colour television in Israel, Sage Journals
# Abraham Rabinovich, Israel lifts its ban on color TV, The Christian Science Monitor
# Wikipedia


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