Some Britons Remain Colorless

Plenty in Britain are determined not to forsake tradition. Yet, the monarchy seems less hidebound than some of these people. At least 13,000 homes across the United Kingdom still use only a black-and-white TV.

It's now about 46 years after color TV became available over there. Churchill wasn’t still prime minister, but that’s going . Elton John hadn’t released his first album. Some group whose name rhymed with an insect was all the rage.

Here’s how unwilling some Britons apparently still are to change their telly: As the U.K. underwent its recent digital transition, those with a black-and-white TV had to spend $16 for a device to keep receiving signals. For maybe $100 more, they could have purchased a new set and wouldn’t have to guess about the color of Lady Grantham’s dress on “Downton Abbey” or if Manchester United had switched uniform colors.

Imagine how bewildered this group might feel at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week with all those cutting-edge sets on display. Strike that: they might not even make it into the hall, having been blinded by the lights on the Strip.



While 13,000 is no small number by itself – some cable networks might take that many viewers at times -- it’s a tiny percentage of the 25 million TV homes in the U.K. And, who knows, maybe some hipsters are boosting the number, looking to go retro with an eBay purchase of a vintage Magnavox. 

Some black-and-white set owners may also be looking to save a pound – and not just by avoiding purchasing a new set. Britons must pay a license fee in order to receive TV and the cost for black-and-white reception is about $80 annually versus about $235 for a color feed – no small discount for some elderly and others struggling economically.

(Homes where there is a black-and-white set, but also someone watching color feeds via a smartphone, computer or tablet, still have to pay the higher color-TV fee.)

The percentage of black-and-white sets still in use in the U.K. – tracked by the number of licenses handed out -- may actually be pretty close to the U.S. Nielsen estimates there were 110,000 in use in 2003 – less than 1% -- and stopped counting in 2007.

Across the U.K., London leads with the most black-and-white sets at just over 2,700. Birmingham with 574 and Manchester at 413 are next. In Scotland, Glasgow has 256 and in Northern Ireland, Belfast has 143.

Those using the older sets are declining rapidly. In 2000, there were 212,000 “monochrome” licenses. It was 93,000 a decade ago and 50,000 in 2006.

In addition to factors such as economics and some people just not wanting to feel peer-pressured into changing their technology, another contributor could be a feeling it’s a lot cooler to have a Zenith with rabbit ears – even if they serve no good – than a set at the would-be zenith of innovation.

Stephen Farmer of the U.K. licensing body wrote in an email “there may be a certain number who enjoy having a classic TV in the corner of the room – it would be a talking point!”

But after a few minutes, things might get pretty dull.

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