British viewers could be wasting up to a week every year choosing what to watch on television. A survey commissioned by Microsoft of nearly 2,000 digital television viewers in the United Kingdom found that over a quarter of them rely on flicking through channels to choose what to watch, apparently spending up to 3.5 hours a week channel surfing. However, the headline figures may be misleading.

On average, digital viewers in the UK spend between two and three hours each day watching television, yet typically up to a quarter of that time is actually spend deciding what to watch, suggests the Microsoft survey. One in five of those aged between 16 and 24 reported spending more than a quarter of their television viewing time finding something to watch, compared to one in twenty of those aged over 55.

The headline about wasting a week every year channel surfing was widely reported by Reuters and repeated across the web.

Reporters should always be cautious when reporting the results of surveys promoted by public relations companies, not least when they say little about the methodology employed.

In fact, the 15-24 age band represents about 15% of the population and around the same proportion of the digital television audience in the United Kingdom. That would be around 300 individuals in a representative sample of 2,000 people. Of these, we are told, 20% spend more than a quarter of their television time finding something to watch. That would be around 60 individuals among those surveyed, or 3% of the total sample.

It so happens that this age group also tends to watch less television in general, with only around 83% watching for at least 15 consecutive minutes in a week. They are also watching less television than ever — 17.6 hours per week in 2007 according to BARB, compared to nearly 24 hours a week for the audience in general. It should be no surprise to the television industry that the viewing behaviours of young adults are rather different to those of the population at large.

The reason that Microsoft promoted the results of this survey was to indicate the importance of search in television guides.

“With so many digital channels to choose from as well as growing volume of digitally recorded and on-demand content it’s not surprising viewers find it difficult to decide what to watch,” said Christine Heckart, of the Microsoft Connected TV division. “To get the most out of your TV service you need to be able to find what you want to watch, when you want, quickly and easily.”

“That’s why we made search a key feature of Mediaroom, which is used by BT for its BT Vision TV service,” she added. “Microsoft has been studying and refining TV search with input from consumers around the world for over nine years.”

Microsoft has spent more than a decade trying to change the way we watch television. So far the Microsoft Mediaroom platform has been adopted by something over two million households worldwide.

Of the British digital television viewers surveyed by Microsoft, 56% said that searching for programmes using keywords would improve or greatly improve their television viewing experience. That rose to 69% of those aged 16-24.

This is the internet generation, for whom searching online is second nature. Whether they will find what they want to watch on television even with improved search facilities is another matter.