Copyright protection laws are not always caught of up technology, so it's difficult to say, generally, whether you can legally download television shows with any sort of finality. Some legal analysts suggest that consumers who so are clearly in violation of existing copyright laws. Others equate the practice with videotaping or digitally recording broadcasts for later personal viewing. Currently, the most common methods used to download programs are very similar to file-sharing systems already being challenged in courts around the world. There are also legal ways to download TV, usually by purchasing individual episodes or full seasons from a company that has the legal right to redistribute the programs.
The technology to download television shows — legally or otherwise — is widely available, and sales of the equipment that allow digital recordings have not been outlawed. Digital video recorder (DVR) devices allow users to record and save television shows, and some even allow them to be transferred to a computer or burned to a DVD. These devices may also allow the user to pause live television and skip commercials on recorded programs at the press of a button. In at least the US, DVRs fall under the same protection as video cassette recorders (VCRs), with the user agreeing to not distribute the recorded material commercially and do all viewing in a private home.
With the advent of streaming video and broadband Internet services, however, the legality of downloading television shows has become less clear in many cases. Producing a primetime comedy or drama can be a very expensive venture for network executives. Creative artists such as writers, directors and actors must be compensated for their skills, and technical expenses must also be recouped. While networks recover many of these expenses through the sale of advertising, sometimes the profit margin is surprisingly thin. When a TV show is downloaded from a file sharing site, the people who put their time and money into it are usually not compensated.
There is also the question of copyright, which is designed to establish legal ownership of the show as a creative work. Whoever owns the copyright to the show has the right not only to make money from the program, but also to reproduce it and transmit it. When someone copies a program without the owner's consent and makes digital copies available, they are usually violating the copyright.
In at least the US, it is legal to use a DVR to download television shows for private viewing. In a copyright law sense, it may be illegal to download shows from any source not authorized by the legal owners of those shows to distribute that content. A person can legally download TV programs that are offered through authorized services licensed by the owners. Most of the major broadcast networks in the United States also now have websites that stream selected episodes of shows to viewers.