1967: The Summer of Love and the First CES
Attendees and especially exhibitors marvel at the minor miracle that occurs at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands and varying area hotel ballrooms each January. Overnight, the CES show floors magically morph from cacophonous construction chaos into the orderly, premier trade show in the country.
This annui miraculo was established at the first-ever CES, held 50 years ago, June 25-28, 1967. The event took place in New York at the midtown Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue and the Americana Hotel – now the Sheraton – around the block on Seventh Avenue, along with a small number of exhibits at the Warwick and the City Square hotels.
No one knew if a standalone "consumer electronics show" would work; the only other such confabs had taken place 30 years before, and had been open-to-the-public events. The miracle was the estimated 17,500 manufacturers, distributors, and retailers who showed up to check out the 117 exhibits occupying 150,000 square feet over the four locations, viewing 10,000 products ranging "from $8 radios the size of a pack of cigarettes to $15,000 room-length stereophonic units," according to coverage of the show in The New York Times.
Perhaps miraculous, perhaps the product of careful planning and execution, perhaps a little of both, the first CES was an unqualified success. But given the turbulence of the times and the seismic changes occuring in hardware, content and its customer base within the industry itself, there was no guarantee that first CES would turn into a second or third or more.
In mid-1967, sales were slumping on the industry's primary products compared the same period the year prior. Monochrome TV sales were down 29.1 percent, radio sets were down 12.3 percent, and console record players were down 23.8 percent.
There were sales bright spots to be sure but no way to showcase them. Without an industry-sponsored exhibition, CE vendors were forced to exhibit their wares at other largely inappropriate trade venues, primarily The Music Show sponsored by NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants).
Consumer technology as an industry also was being subsumed by the larger electronics business. Today's CTA began life in 1924 as the RMA (Radio Manufacturers Association) in 1924. To keep pace with the rapid post-war technology changes, the RMA became the RTMA (Radio and Television Manufacturers Association) in 1950, then the RETMA (Radio-Electronics Television Manufacturers Association) in 1953.
But just four years later, recognizing the increasing importance of government and industrial electronics, RETMA radically transformed itself into the EIA (Electronics Industries of America), and the newly formed Consumer Products Division became merely one sector within EIA, led by staff VP Jack Wayman. By the late 1960s, the consumer electronics sector represented less than 20 percent of all electronics sales.
The Times They Are a Changin'
Like the rest of American society, the CE business experienced gradual yet radical shift in the mid-1960s, not only on what products were sold, but how they were sold and to whom they were sold.
By 1967, color and portable TVs, hi-fi components, and new audio cassette tape formats designed for the car started to dominate sales. These product shifts coincided with changing consumer demographics; the post-war generation was finally becoming a spending force, which prompted the emergence of a new breed of consumer electronics retailer to appeal to this growing baby boomer buying base. Despite dipping sales of heretofore tent pole products, the consumer electronics sector had grown into an $8 billion business.
Wayman, reasoning that a standalone show featuring only CE vendors would shine an unfiltered light on the new emerging CE innovations and increase the industry's market standing, convinced the EIA board to create CES at the association's mid-1966 confab.
Big News at CES
Television in 1967 was undergoing its first major technology shift, from black-and-white to color. The 1966-67 TV season was the first in which all three networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – aired their complete primetime schedules in color. Color sets would outsell monochrome models for the first time by the end of the year.
To help goose summer sales, several TV suppliers cut their color TV prices between 5 and 10 percent just before that first CES, and several companies unveiled their first "portable" color TVs with handles, battery packs, and telescoping antennas with screens ranging from 4 to 14 inches and weighing in at a barely totable 40 pounds.
The largely U.S.-centric CE industry in 1967 was also dealing with new Asian upstarts including Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sharp, and Toshiba—all of which had recently, or soon would establish U.S. subsidiaries. Japanese TV makers unveiled their initial color models at that first CES, but total "import foreign" sets still represented only around 5 percent of the U.S. market.
But in a scenario that would repeat itself over the next half century, the first CES was dominated by a format war, this first one involving audiotape.
Over the previous couple years, 8-track tape (aka Stereo 8) had established itself as a rival to vinyl, and brought personal music choices to the car for the first time. But the year before the first CES, Philips introduced the compact cassette, marketed in the U.S. by its Norelco subsidiary, which introduced several new second-generation players and recorders in New York. A third tape format also was unveiled in 1966 by MGM, PlayTape, an 1/8-inch loop cartridge that could only hold up to 24 minutes of music.
As in all subsequent format wars, vendors chose sides, and content providers – record labels – were forced to release music in multiple formats. Billboard's top-selling album that summer, The Beatles' landmark "Sgt. Pepper," was confusingly released in vinyl LP, 8-track, compact cassette, 4-track, reel-to-reel and in a severely truncated PlayTape version.
CES Past, Present, and Future
Needless to say, the CE business thrived after that first show. CES remained in the same New York venues for the next three years. Wayman's preferred site from the beginning, however, was the more centralized Chicago, but McCormick Place was undergoing a total rebuild after a severe fire in January 1967 and wouldn't re-open until January 1971, in time for the June 1971 CES. A new winter CES was inaugurated in Las Vegas in 1978, and the Chicago summer show lasted until 1994, leaving just today's annual January international brouhaha.
And each year, CES grew in attendees, exhibitors, floor space, industry importance, and market prestige. Last January, a record 3,800-plus exhibitors and a record 170,000-plus attendees overwhelmed Las Vegas for the 50th anniversary CES.
"Only a few events and tradeshows have 50 years of success, and we are humbled to be in this elite group," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA. "Over the past 50 years CES has evolved as the industry has changed, reflecting and helping drive the ever expanding consumer tech landscape. We have succeeded throughout the years due, in large part, to our loyal customers, partners and the deep relationships we have made along the way. This anniversary is the perfect milestone to thank and celebrate our incredible industry partners and the individuals and companies who have been with us for five decades."
CES is now as it was in 1967, the consumer technology industry's showcase.