Monday, October 27, 2014

Forecasting TV Pickups in Britain

The British love their tea.  They also love watching TV.  When these two factors come together an interesting and unique phenomena known as the TV Pickup occurs.  During commercial breaks, half times, at the end of shows, and between shows millions of households put the kettle on to heat water for their tea.  This draws vast reserves of power (multiple giga-watts worth) in less than five minutes, resulting in a possible overload of the power grid.  The challenge is to effectively forecast the massive surge in energy usage caused by the TV Pickup.

In some ways forecasting for this massive increase in demand is simple.  The timing, at least, is fairly easy to follow.  The two examples used, EastEnders (a B.B.C. sitcom) and large soccer matches, both have predictable stoppage points.  The end of EastEnders is set ahead of time, although as seen in the video they sometimes run slightly over which requires quick adjustments to the timing of the TV Pickup, while soccer matches have half-time at 45 minutes and the game finishes at 90 minutes.  Timing the TV Pickups for soccer is a little more complicated due to the addition of stoppage time (games on-average run 3 minutes over, though stoppage time can be as short as 30 seconds and as long as 8 minutes) as well as extra time/shootouts of the game is tied at the end and being played in a tournament setting.

With a bit of experience for soccer it is easy to tell how long stoppage time will be or if the game is headed into extra time, but the biggest challenge comes in forecasting viewing demand and the number of kettles that will be put on.  Most episodes of EastEnders average 7 million viewers, with some getting as high as 9 million.  However in 1986 when Den Watts served Angie her divorce papers (disclaimer: I have no idea who these characters are or what their story is) the show attracted 30 million viewers.   The challenge then becomes predicting the popularity of specific episodes, which means following the plot-line and attempting to forecast when an upcoming episode will be more popular.

For soccer it can be even harder to tell which matches will be the most popular.  To date the England vs West Germany semi-final match in 1990 was the most popular, with the equivalent of 1.12 million kettles being put on at the end of the game (the end of extra time to be specific).  The second most popular was the quarter-final matchup of England v Brazil in 2002, when the equivalent of 1.03 million kettles were put on at half-time.  To further complicate things, the equivalent of 840,000 kettles were put on at half-time of the extra time in the 1998 round of 16 matchup between England and Nigeria.  

Half-time, end of extra-time, half-time of extra time, it can be difficult to predict at which breakpoint people will want their cuppa.  Predicting overall viewership can also be difficult, as it is hard to tell which games will be the most popular.  To do this they have begun surveying soccer fans to determine which games they think will be most popular and which games they will watch.

Ultimately the task of forecasting TV Pickups is a difficult one, where power grid operators must rely on a blend of historical data and intuition to accurately project power usage from kettles and respond accordingly.

What are some additional methods the utility companies could use to predict and forecast which TV programs will be the most popular?

While the TV Pickup is unique to Britain (due to their love of tea and kettles), are there any similar phenomena that occur in the United States?

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