How Swanson’s TV Dinners Made It to the Digital Age

Thank American Airlines, 260 tons of turkey and dudes who still can’t cook

C.A. Swanson & Company had a big problem. It was just after Thanksgiving 1953, and the frozen-food brand had wildly overestimated the demand for turkey. Now, 260 tons of frozen birds were sitting in refrigerated train cars. Since the compressors only worked when the cars were moving, Swanson ordered its train to travel back and forth between Nebraska and the East Coast until panicked executives could figure out what to do.

The answer would come from a sales rep named Gerry Thomas. On a trip to Pittsburgh, Thomas had noticed the three-compartment aluminum trays used by American Airlines. Thomas sent a sample tray to Omaha, advising his superiors to sell off their surplus turkey as a ready-made frozen meal. Then the marketing guys added a touch of genius. They called the product the Television Dinner. Priced at 89 cents, the meal (turkey with corn-bread stuffing, sweet potatoes and buttered peas) made its debut in 1954. By year's end, Americans had bought 25 million of them. 

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Even though sales have been flat since 2008, TV dinners are still a $9 billion business in America, and Swanson (bought by Pinnacle Foods in 2001 and now sold as Hungry-Man) was the marquee brand. It also proved the business maxim that success belongs not to the inventor, but to he who perfects.

As it turns out, frozen entrees date back to the 1940s, with names like Strato-Plates, One-Eyed Eskimo and Jack Fisher's FridgiDinners—all of which were met with a chilly response. Swanson succeeded not because the concept was new but because the marketing was. Not only did it coin a catchy name ("Television Dinner" quickly became "TV Dinner"), but it also popped for a six-color box that resembled an actual TV set, right down to the tuning knobs. The thematic tie-in was perfectly timed. There were 33 million TV sets in America at the time; close to 56 percent of the population had bought one. Because the name implied that Americans should eat their frozen dinners while watching TV, Swanson's product resonated as both convenient and modern.

It did its best to stay modern, too. Swanson adjusted with the times, switching from aluminum trays to plastic when the microwave arrived, and offering ethnic and low-calorie varieties. It was the coming of the digital age and the millennial generation that caused problems, according to Harvey Hartman, founder of consumer culture research consultancy the Hartman Group. "If you look at the very nature of the frozen TV dinner, there are three elements that are no longer relevant—frozen, TV and dinner," Hartman said. Younger consumers want fresh ingredients, mobile use is supplanting TV time, and "dinner" increasingly means a late-night snack.

Hartman points out that plenty of Americans still like TV dinners, but these days they function more like bachelor-comfort food. "It's 3 a.m., you're sitting there by yourself, and you want something comfortable," he said. "And nothing has replaced that." 

Television: Olivier Lantzendorffer