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When Bruce Springsteen shot up his TV, frustrated because there were "57 Channels and Nothing On," it was still in the early days of the cable/satellite revolution http://www.lyricsvault.net/songs/9150.html). Imagine what Bruce would do today, when there are hundreds of channels - still with nothing decent on! Don't get me wrong - I'm just as much a fan of vapid doggerel as the next guy. I can sit for hours at a time in front of E! and watch mockumentaries about "The Making of 'nSync" and other complete wastes of time.
What I don't get are the people who care enough about TV to download the latest chapter of whatever sitcom or action show was on last night to their computers. The show was just on TV, or will be on soon, or, if it's on a cable or satellite channel, will be rerun N times, surely at an hour when it's convenient to watch.
For whatever reason, though, there are millions of people who prefer to get their TV via the Internet, downloading programs via the Bittorrent network. Bittorrent (http://www.bittorrent.com) is to video what Napster or Kazaa was to music a few years ago; the place to go for the latest episode of whatever show you've missed. Bittorrent's protocol is somewhat different from that of Napster, in that the network is diffused among users, who supply the bandwidth and storage areas for files. Each file is divided into segments ("hashes"), with the correct order of a file set by a torrent header file you download. Once you load that file into a Bittorrent client program (some popular ones are available free at http://www.utorrent.com/ and http://azureus.sourceforge.net/), you connect to a tracker, which searches for file segments among servers and begins fetching them for you. Once you get a segment, though, you're not only a client - your PC turns into a server too, allowing other users searching for the same file to upload segments already on your computer.
Legally, there's nothing wrong with the Bittorrent protocol, and it's used to distribute large computer files, such as Linux ISO CD images, which are legally distributable and would put too much strain on a single server if users were to download such large files from one site (http://www.linuxtracker.org/).
But sharing installation files, of course, is not the main purpose to which Bittorrent is put; the most popular files on Bittorrent networks are weekly episodes of TV shows, mostly downloaded by people who could easily record them with a VCR. Movies and music are also popular shares for Bittorrent users, but TV seems to have taken the title for most popular file type. And with the average half hour program weighing in at about 175 MB, it's easy to understand why people sharing such files use Bittorrent.
Unlike movies and music, network TV is usually freely accessible to all, unless it's on a premium channel like HBO, which has indeed threatened to punish those who pirate their shows (http://tinyurl.com/cqkjy). But the legal issues in digitally sharing a program by, say, NBC, are somewhat murkier; if all you have to do is turn on a TV to watch and/or record a program with a VCR, what's the problem with recording that program using a computer? Not being a copyright attorney I couldn't tell you what the law has to say about this, but it does make sense on some level.
But why bother? You know what you're going to get when you watch TV; the same old plot lines, with the only change being the actors reciting the lines. Really, if you've watched I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and Mission Impossible, you've more or less seen all the TV you need to, because almost everything on today is a retread. It's one thing to watch them when they're on TV, but to spend bandwidth and time downloading them?
If you're looking for intelligent entertainment, though, Bittorrent can be a big help. There are lots of sites where you can download interesting, eclectic programs and full length movies, all legal, and made by independent artists with something unconventional to say. Check out, for example, Star Wars: Revelations (http://www.panicstruckpro.com/revelations/), a 40-minute flick made by fans (with George Lucas' blessing) that fills in the history between Star Wars III and IV. Hours upon hours of drama, comedy and music are available at http://www.legaltorrents.com/index.htm. Dozens of very funny programs and bits spoofing TV and the movies are available at http://www.fanfilms.net/, and even more fun movies can be downloaded from http://www.piranhapictures.co.uk/ - all using the easy downloading goodness of Bittorrent without the mind-addling aspects of commercial TV. You'll have them eating out of the palms of your hand at the water cooler as you recount the nutty adventures of Captain Pirk (http://www.starwreck.com/) - guaranteed!