Hotspots in the online video underground

Be warned, when you wander the back alleys of online content distribution, you might get mugged by malware

Once upon a time, it was easy enough to find your favorite clips and shows on YouTube. After all, the site owed its early fame in part to Lazy Sunday from Saturday Night Live. When media companies wised up, many folks moved to France's DailyMotion. Copyright enforcers duly followed; but on the Internet, that rabbit hole is proving to be bottomless.

Of course, it continues to be easy enough to download television and movies through torrents indexed at places like Mininova. But the multistep process of finding a torrent and downloading its data is discouraging for most casual consumers. They want streaming on demand--and many of them aren't content to wait 24 hours or more after a broadcast, as they might on network Web sites, Hulu, Amazon, or iTunes. Enter a new generation of sites that offer better quality and timelier programming than YouTube ever did.

Be warned, however, that when you wander the back alleys of online content distribution, you might get mugged by malware, logged by authorities, or disappointed by a junk heap of broken links and salacious come-ons--sort of like shopping for pirated DVDs on LA's Santee Alley or Manhattan's Canal Street.

Sidereel

Sidereel doesn't offer any streamed television show episodes itself, but it does offer a very convenient way to find them online. Look up a show, and you'll find recaps, commentary, and listings of where to find episodes online. The site plays nice by highlighting official sources, such as downloads from the iTunes Store and copies on Hulu. But click 'See more results', and you'll probably end up at one of the following locations.

Youku

Our first stop is in China, where YouTube imitator Youku hosts all sorts of American entertainment for free. The quality isn't great, the streaming is prone to hanging, and the video is marked up with all sorts of watermarks and Chinese subtitles, but as an option of last resort for catching House M.D. before your coworker spoils the budding romance between House and Cutty for you, Youku is usually a pretty reliable resource.

MegaVideo

Part of a cluster of sites that includes free porn destination Megarotic and paid online storage service MegaUpload, MegaVideo is a treasure trove of shows available as instant-access, easy-to-use Flash video streams. Don't bother visiting the homepage or trying to search the site for clandestine content; you'll find only an innocuous collection of home movies and other safe-as-milk options. Instead, you have to search Sidereel or Yidio to find sequestered pages of intentionally hard-to-find copies of episodes. Alternatively, you can try submitting an instruction to Google along the lines of "show title +megavideo" to find pages with links to shows that might be embedded in the site.

After you've watched 72 minutes of video, the service will lock you out for an hour--unless you register or sign up for a premium account. But of course, there are hacks.

SupernovaTube

Another site that offers higher-quality Flash video streams is SupernovaTube. Again, the search feature on the site itself is essentially disabled. In addition, the site requires you to click a simple 'I am human' button before accessing a video; this is used to filter out bots (and honest barnyard animals) looking to rip large swaths of content or to issue automated takedown requests. So look for clips linked on Sidereel and on other list pages that turn up in a regular Web search.

NinjaVideo.net

A clearinghouse for popular content, NinjaVideo.net plays back video in high-quality DivX format. In addition, NinjaVideo serves as an index for finding MegaVideo versions of shows. One frustrating feature of this site is that you have to open a Java applet called the NinjaVideo Helper and extend broad permissions to it before you can play back the DivX video. The site's administrators have publicly assured folks that there's no malware to worry about. Full-page ads do pop up, though, which can necessitate multiple clicks to get the actual video started.

Contributing members post NinjaVideo rips, and the newer videos usually work fine. The older videos, however, often fail to start. Also noteworthy: NinjaVideo has no search function to search for older content in the first place. The site has more of a community focus than most of the others mentioned here, with message boards, a podcast, and a focus that extends beyond episodes of Lost (which generally pushes the site's servers to the limit on Wednesday nights) to documentaries and other long-form news programming.

SwarmPlayer and EZTV

An effort from television-show torrent site EZTV may represent the next generation in sites combining streaming ease with download quality. Using the experimental SwarmPlayer, Windows and Linux users can stream the torrent files that they would normally have to wait to download. It's all very experimental, so your mileage may vary. But this technology is not just for pirates: The BBC is part of a consortium that is sponsoring the developers in an effort to find more-efficient methods of online video distribution. The software, and other, similar efforts promise to deliver (eventually) all of the benefits of peer-to-peer distribution without the disadvantage of making you wait for Ugly Betty to finish downloading before you can view it.

Sites such as Hulu, Amazon Video on Demand, and the Apple iTunes Store have simplified the task of finding and watching your favorite shows, increasing their appeal in the ongoing competition with unlicensed sources. But many of those legitimate sites aren't available outside the United States or may not work with your hardware or software, owing to a tangled web of partnerships, scheduling issues, and geographical restrictions. And when you're desperate to watch Lost before someone spoils the episode for you the next day, it's nice to know that you have viewing options--legal ambiguity be damned.

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Jackson West

PC World (US online)
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