Feeding that Foreign TV Habit

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2003

You don't have to rely on videotapes from Mom anymore; many shows can be found via broadband and P2P.

by Mark McCracken

Your heart raced when you found it in your mailbox. A videotape from mom. You spend the next six hours in front of the TV, soaking up whatever boob-tube culture she had recorded back home. It was a mini-vacation.

Now more homesick expats are telling Mom not to bother with those tapes. They've simplified the process of finding foreign TV shows with peer to peer (P2P) applications and some of the world's least expensive broadband Internet connections. Just as millions of Napster users shared .mp3 music files, broadband users are now using P2P programs to share the latest TV shows. No need to wait for that outdated 2:35 a.m. show on NHK anymore.

The first step to happy viewing in Japan is getting a broadband Internet connection from a provider such as Yahoo! BB (http://bb.yahoo.co.jp). Once the broadband is installed and working, users can choose a P2P program and look for their favorite shows. These programs seem to come and go as companies start out with good intentions and then die away when the cash runs out (Rest in peace, Napster). California expat Eric Stowe recommends KaZaA Lite, available at http://www.kazaalite.com. "The easy-to-use interface makes it quite convenient," Stowe says. Download.com is also a great place to find the latest, most popular file-sharing programs, including programs for Macintosh users. Anyone downloading video files is going to also need some significant disk drive space to save these shows until they are viewed. 10 gigabytes dedicated to downloaded files is not uncommon.

How good is the video quality? It is certainly less than you would get on a regular TV, but still viewable, and most of the audio is first rate. The files usually vary in size between 140 and 500 megabytes or more for a 1-hour show (which comes out to about 44 minutes without commercials). Downloading is slow. With P2P, you are copying a file directly from someone else's computer. One 40-minute program can easily take several days to download. The best way to compensate for this is to download several dozen files at the same time, and then watch each show once it is completely downloaded.

Searching for the shows is easy. Titles widely available include: Seinfield, The West Wing, The Simpsons, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Friends, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and MTV's Jackass. The more popular the show, the more likely it is to be shared. A wide variety of special moments are also available including videos of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, a pre-presidential George W. Bush appearing drunk at a wedding and some unfortunate zookeeper getting his head stuck in an elephant's ass.

Newly released feature films are often online before they are shown in Japanese movie theaters, but the quality is much worse -- garbled audio, poor lighting, sounds of people in the audience coughing. Older films that have already been released on DVD are usually available in much better quality.

The files themselves come in a variety of formats. Most are playable with a standard media player like the Microsoft Windows Media Player. Occasionally users will need to search Yahoo or Google for missing codec files. Large .avi files will sometimes crash your system, especially if your computer is a few years old. Using software programs, like TMPG 2.5 available at http://www.tmpgenc.net, you can convert .avi files into the .mpeg format, which seems to improve playability.

It would be remiss to not mention the downside of feeding one's foreign TV habit via P2P programs. First, some of the files being shared are copyrighted. Fair use advocates say sharing files with others is within their rights. Content owners argue that copying a file is an infringement on their copyrights. Governments around the world are struggling to catch up with the emerging technology. While some might see little harm in sharing a TV show that has already been broadcast, downloading a movie not yet in the theaters seems significantly less ethical. On the other hand, seeing a poorly lit, grainy copy of Minority Report or The Sum of All Fears might prompt you to go out to the theater and pay for the wide screen special effects and THX sound system.

Second, with just a few small mistakes, users can unwittingly share the entire contents of their computer. Most P2P programs clearly show what files are being shared, but it's a hassle to constantly monitor the program. One way to handle this is to remove all the sensitive data from your computer and just not worry about what you are sharing. Some users have a local area network (LAN) set up and dedicate one computer to sharing and downloading and the other to email and word processing. KaZaA Lite lets users chose which folders they want to share. Other programs allow users to also restrict by file extensions, sharing, for example, all .mp3 and .avi files, but none of the .doc or .pst files. "I haven't had any problems, but as a precaution, I would suggest using a reputable firewall," Stowe says. "I think sharing files openly is key."

If you want to avoid the P2P programs all together, it's still probably a good idea to get broadband service. Both national networks and local TV stations often have archives of recent clips. Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Comedy Channel's The Daily Show all offer excerpts catalogued by broadcast date on their respective websites. These are usually streamed into your computer and disappear after you watch them, so they don't take up nearly as much disk drive space. Whether you use P2P or not, it is clear that the availability of inexpensive broadband service in Japan is making those videotapes from mom a thing of the past. @

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