A guide to downloading movies and TV shows


By Joshua Zimmerman

Disclaimer:  You can in fact get in trouble for downloading movies, music, and TV shows you do not own. While you have a better chance of being struck by lightning while being bitten by a shark, there is still a chance that you might get in trouble. If you do, its not my fault.

If I was back in the United States I’d be watching the season premiere of Lost right now. But I’m not. I’m here in Japan, which means I’ll either have to wait two years for the DVDs to come to my local Japanese video store, or find a digital solution to the problem.

The Very Legal Way

You can in fact watch a show very legally for a very low price. It’s call the iTunes store. Use a credit card and sign up, then buy your TV shows at a couple of dollars a pop. Legal and easy. Plus, as a bonus you can just pop those movies or TV shows over to your iPod or iPhone, no hassle whatsoever.

The Semi Legal Way

There are several ways to somewhat legally watch your favorite TV shows on the Web, such as with Hulu.com. Hulu lets you stream (watch in your Web browser) TV shows and movies. The only problem is that it doesn’t work outside of North America. But there are some ways to get around it if you’re smart.

What you have to do is fool Hulu into thinking your computer lives in North America. This can be done several ways. Programs like Hotspot Shield or Ultrasurf create a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that replaces your normal IP address with one that’s from North America.

If you’re using the browser Firefox, you can download any number of free proxy plugins/filters that make you appear to be in North America (though this rarely works for me). This usually requires some techie know-how, and also requires constantly looking around the Web for proxies to use.

If you’re lucky, some of your favorite TV shows might be available for streaming within Japan. Websites such as The Daily Show and South Park work fine in Japan at the moment (though as I recently found out, South Park does not work in New Zealand or Australia).

The Not Really Legal Way

Streaming doesn’t have to be done through “official” websites.  There are plenty of websites out there that stream new media to anyone who wants it.

One example is the website Sidereel. It’s well organized, includes links to both legal and not-so-legal streaming, and is always being updated. Sidereel doesn’t actually stream anything to you. It’s more a directory of other random semi-sites that do stream stuff.

If Sidereel isn’t your bag, you can always try SurfTheChannel, which has more or less the same setup as Sidereel.

While this approach works well for new content, older content often disappears. So while this might be a great way to watch last week’s Lost, it’s not a reliable way for you to watch all of Season 1.

The Most Certainly Not Legal Way

So if all else fails, or if you hate dealing with streaming sites, you can always turn to downloading content. To do this you need to use a process called Bittorrent.

(And if for some reason you still have Limewire or Kazaa on your computer, please please please delete them. We’re no longer in the 90s, so why are you using 90s software?)

BitTorrent is a process by which you download stuff. In a nutshell, instead of you downloading a file 100 percent directly from me, you download small bits of the file from many people while at the same time uploading to other people.  It’s a “share as you go” system. Thus download speeds are much faster than traditional methods because everyone shares the burden.

To use BitTorrent, you’ll need to download a BitTorrent client program.  There are hundreds of BitTorrent programs and they all do the same thing. Why not try the official BitTorrent client for a starter? Or if you have a Mac, give the program Transmission a try.

Next you’ll have to find a BitTorrent indexing site, a place that lists what you can download. Here are a few you might enjoy, though there are thousands of such sites all over the Web.

Now you’ll have to find  something to download. Go to one of the above sites and find a file of any type (such as this very legal set of desktop pictures). Then find a link that says “Download the Torrent.” What this will do is download a very small file that ends in “.torrent”.

Open this with your BitTorrent program and wait (you probably can just drag it into the program window). You’ll see something like this, though depending on what program you use it could have a different overall look.

See, that wasn’t so tough now, was it? Just keep in mind that the speed at which you’re downloading a file depends on how many other people are downloading a file. Thus the new season of Lost might go very fast, whereas old episodes of Knight Rider will probably be slow. (Not that we’d do something so illegal.)

Here are a couple key words you should know and keep an eye out for before downloading something via BitTorrent:

Seeder – Someone who has the entire file you’re after.

Leecher – Someone who has part of the file you’re after.

The key to downloading something via Bittorrent is to find files that have a lot of Seeders. Stay away from files (if you can) that have one Seeder and 10,000 Leechers. In these cases you have 10,000 people all trying to get the same one file from the same one person. The more Seeders uploading your file, the faster you’ll get it (probably). This is very important when, say, you’re downloading 4 gigabytes worth of old seasons of Lost. Not that we’d do that, but in theory, you totally can.

If you’re having trouble playing a video file you’ve “gotten” off the Web, why not try the very free program VLC? It works for Windows and Mac.

Now if you want to convert any files you download so that they’ll work with your iPod or iPhone, one free program you can try is Handbrake, which works for Windows and Mac. It will convert nearly any video file into any other kind of video file, with presets for iPods and iPhone. Just convert, throw the new video file into iTunes, and then move it to your iPod or iPhone. Easy.

To Wrap Thing Up…

There are many legal and illegal ways of keeping yourself up to date with movies and TV shows. If you really like a TV show, PLEASE attempt to watch it legally, whether it’s through Hulu or by buying it on iTunes. Every time you buy a show, you’re “voting” for it with your money and telling the networks to keep it on the air and help ensure that the show will continue to be made in the future.


  1. For the iTunes store, you have to have an American credit card and billing address…meaning short stay residents only, right?

  2. Jim,

    No. You don’t need a credit card and billing address. The directions above only require having an email address, and the same can be used for signing up for a free American iTunes Account. If you wanted to you could just sign up for a free account and then just use gift cards. Thus never having to use a credit card.

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