This Side of the Pond – July 27

By Sarah Pridgeon

If you ever find yourself in need of proof that the British are a peculiar species, look no further than the existence of the “TV pickup”. Until I came across it entirely by accident this week, I had no idea such a thing existed, but I will be rolling this one out at parties for the rest of my days, I should think.

Only in my country of birth can you set your watch by electrical activity. Only in the United Kingdom does a shared habit exist that’s so powerful it requires large-scale preparations. And only back in Britain does a single beverage hold so much sway that it dictates our very power grid.

Permit me to explain what a “TV pickup” actually is. I know you won’t be familiar with it because this is a phenomenon that quite literally only exists in my homeland.

In a nutshell, whenever there’s a particularly popular show on the television, it’s go-time for the National Grid, the electricity network that connects power stations all across the island. The Grid needs to prepare for these moments because, as soon as there’s an ad break and when the end credits roll, there’s a surge of demand for electricity that far exceeds the ordinary supply.

Why? Because millions of kettles are switched on across the country and millions of fridge doors open and close as millions of Britons head for the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

We might be living in an age of DVR recordings, streaming and a pause button on the television itself, but that hasn’t changed things as much as you might think. TV pickups aren’t happening quite as much as they once were, but they are indeed still happening.

We Brits like our habits, which means that we all sit down to watch our soap operas at the same time every day. Because of this, huge swaths of the population park their backsides on the sofa at precisely the same moment. All of them then get back up again when the adverts come on because there’s just enough time to boil the kettle and get the milk added before they end.

The National Grid estimates that, five times a week, when popular soap opera “Eastenders” finishes, extra electricity is required in a quantity that matches 1.75 million extra kettles being boiled. Considering that a lot of those kettles are catering for more than one person, that’s a whole lot of simultaneous cups of tea.

This is the reason that such a role as “forecasting manager” exists: one person whose sole job it is to scour the television listings and work out which programs are going to attract the most viewers and thus at what times the surges will happen.

According to this enterprising individual, TV pickups happen every day at 9 p.m., when the majority of our most-watched shows come to an end, and after an elite set of programs and sporting events. In fact, the surge after Eastenders (and please do bear in mind that this happens every single weekday) is large enough that I’m told backup stations go on standby right across the nation and France makes extra power available just in case the Grid is unable to cope.

The forecasting manager must also keep up with plot lines, because the exact size of the surge will vary according to how juicy the story is. Really good episodes can cause surges double or even three or four times bigger than average.

And then there are the national events, which probably require the distribution of paper bags among National Grid employees to see them through the panic. A royal wedding or an international sporting event will cause gargantuan levels of tea drinking.

The record-holding TV pickup happened all the way back in 1990, when England’s soccer team was facing West Germany in a semi-final penalty shootout in the FIFA World Cup. England has a habit of being awful at penalty shootouts and Germany fields extremely good football teams, so there weren’t many fingernails left on British hands the next morning.

When that shootout was over (spoiler: we mucked it up), the nation heaved a collective sigh and drowned its sorrows in an ocean of tea. Bearing in mind that an average pickup brings extra demand of 200 to 400 megawatts, one can only imagine how much profit the teabag companies made that day during a surge of 2800 megawatts.

The rest of the largest pickups on record took place during shows including The Thorn Birds and The Darling Buds of May, during the quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup in 2002, when England faced Australia in 2003’s Rugby World Cup Final and, predictably, during the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. There was another one during a really dramatic episode of Eastenders in 2001 when one character admitted to shooting another character (which we’d been waiting for her to do for weeks).

I’m almost proud to say that this simultaneous desire for a nice cup of tea caused the construction of the Dinorwig Power Station, which has the fastest response time of any pumped storage station on the planet and can come up with 1320 megawatts in just 12 seconds.

Convenient as streaming is, in a way it’s sad that television habits are changing so rapidly, because that means the TV pickup will become a thing of the past. Until that time, however, I’ll stick to my own habits and head for the kettle every time there’s an ad break. Thinking about it, I should really ask Powder River if they’ve noticed any strange but regular power surges since I moved here, shouldn’t I?