Only a couple of years ago, missing your favorite television show meant, well, missing it. Unless a friend had taped it, your only chance for catching the episode would be to wait for a rerun.
Thanks to broadband Internet connections, it’s possible to download the episodes that you’ve missed, as well as older shows, and even programs that may not be be shown in your area. Missed the latest episode of "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives"? You can download it and watch it on your computer.
There are a variety of tools for downloading TV programs, including "legal" tools like the iTunes Music Store and Google Video, and "unauthorized" tools like BitTorrent and Internet Relay Chat. The difference between legal and unauthorized methods is whether the television network has authorized the distribution of that program. The legal tools typically charge about $2 to download an episode of a television show; the unauthorized ones are typically free.
Which method should you use? Either iTunes Music Store or Google Video -- today’s two major legal video download applications. I’m not going to tell you not to use the unauthorized programs because they're unethical or illegal, or because the poor networks should be paid for their work. You should avoid them, if at all possible, because they’re quite difficult to use.
Downloading a program with BitTorrent is a complicated process that requires navigating cumbersome (sometimes untrustworthy) video search sites and waiting hours (sometimes overnight) while the show downloads. Even then, the episode might turn out to be encoded in a format that your PC doesn’t handle: so you’ve got to find and install the proper video CODEC. It can be a time-consuming, frustrating process.
The alternative is paying $2 or so at the iTunes Music Store or Google Video. Your program will be available to watch within seconds, or a few minutes at most, with none of the tears and drama (unless, of course, the program is a drama.) My time is precious -- I would rather spend my leisure time watching a favorite television program than waiting for it to download or fussing with video software. I suspect that you would, too.
Online video is in its infancy. The number of programs available for legal download is a drop in the bucket compared to the vast number of programs on television. But the big TV networks are jumping in the bandwagon quickly -- many of the most popular shows, from Battlestar Galactica to The Daily Show, are waiting for you online.
Copyright 2006 by Kevin Savetz. Kevin Savetz is creator of TV Show Tracker (http://www.TVShowTracker.com), a free web site that keeps viewers up-to-date about the latest downloadable TV shows at the iTunes Music Store. Users can subscribe to RSS feeds to receive alerts when new episodes are available.