It’s now taken for granted that football is shown in color, but early on, all games were shown in black and white, if at all. That was until the first college football game to be broadcast in color occurred, which was a Penn football game at Franklin Field.
On Sept. 29, 1951, the Quakers faced off against the California Golden Bears in their season opener. In front of a crowd of 60,000, Penn got walloped by a score of 35-0. Despite this fact, the game marked an important milestone in television and in college football history.
Television had fairly recently become a part of the college football landscape when Penn faced off against Cal. In 1939, the first college football game to be broadcast on television was between Fordham and Waynesburg University. The game was shown on NBC and sparked the trend for college football to engage more with the medium of television.
After that point, college football expanded its television presence, continuing to broadcast on NBC but also utilizing other networks. As it became more popular, networks began looking for ways to set themselves apart from their competitors and for ways to improve the overall viewing experience.
This notion led CBS to want to try out broadcasting one of their games in color. Additionally, CBS had been testing out color programming to begin with. Although few televisions were equipped to show anything other than black-and-white, CBS forayed into colorized television in June 1951, when they broadcasted the very first color TV program.
As a result of people only having black-and-white televisions, the program went nearly unwatched, but it set in motion the chain of events that would lead CBS to want to try it out for the upcoming season of college football.
So, during the first game of the 1951 season, CBS used its Field Sequential System at Franklin Field to capture and then broadcast the live footage from Penn’s matchup with the Bears.
The game might not have intrigued many, given that it was a beatdown from the beginning, but that might not have particularly mattered. Similar to CBS’s first color programming in June of that year, few television sets were equipped to receive the color signal, and the game was only broadcast in a few test markets.
The game was shown in experimental color or whatever first generation color looked like then, which doesn’t come close to rivaling the color that exists on television now. Despite this, the addition of color was a substantial increase in the quality of the broadcast.
After that game at Franklin Field, CBS continued to broadcast college football games in color, with the other members of the Big Three television networks (NBC and ABC) eventually following their lead.
It would be almost 15 years later, however, until an NFL game was shown in color. On Thanksgiving Day in 1965, CBS broadcast their first professional game in color, which was between the Detroit Lions and the Baltimore Colts.
The date Sept. 29, 1951 was not only a day with one huge television milestone, but two. Before the Quakers competed against the Golden Bears, NBC exhibited the first live sporting event that was broadcast from coast-to-coast, a football game between Duke and Pittsburgh.
All of these different firsts and marked improvements in the television sphere were factors in a huge uptick for the television medium as a whole. In 1950, only 9% of American households owned television sets. By 1955, 64% of the country had sets and by 1960, it was 87%.
There were a myriad of factors that led to that drastic increase, but Penn and Franklin Field’s historic color broadcast certainly played at least some small role in it.