04 May, 2007

TV Show Torrents thru RSS: A Piracy Primer for Purloined Programming, Part 2

In the previous post in this series, I outlined the reasons why I prefer to pirate my media, as opposed to buying it outright from the thugs fine folks in the cable entertainment industry. Now it's time to get down and dirty, into the nuts and bolts of how I do what I do.

Most TV shows nowadays are available on the internet very soon after they air, and a few enterprising pirates are dedicated to providing trackers and torrent files for downloading via the BitTorrent file transfer protocol. Legal issues aside, this is a great service for those of us who prefer to roll our own media, but the logistics of automating the process of finding, downloading, encoding, and properly archiving your media take a bit of trial and error to figure out. This is what has worked for me, so your mileage may vary.

First, a word about my setup: I've got a 1Terrabyte external hard drive attached to a Mac Mini, which is in turn hooked up to a 60-inch Pioneer Elite plasma display, and that's pretty much it, aside from a PS2 for gaming, and the speakers hooked up to the Mini. Instead of using a keyboard or mouse to control the Mini when I'm not in Front Row, I run Apple's Remote Desktop to control the Mini from my MacBook. It works like a charm. My setup is pretty bare-bones, and I like it that way. I prefer to watch everything through Front Row, Apple's media center that comes bundled with all new Macs, so I put all of my contents (Shows, Movies and Music) into iTunes. The only upgrade I possibly foresee in the future is to replace the Mini for an AppleTV (as soon as the damn thing comes with an HD-DVD or BluRay - or better yet, a hybrid- drive... otherwise, no deal), and use the Mini as a headless media downloader and server.

I've separated this tutorial into two sections. The first section deals with downloading content automatically. This is good enough for most people, but if you're anally retentive like me, and want every single file you download properly tagged, archived, and accessible via iTunes and Front Row, then stick around for the second part.

So without further ado, here we go. First, you'll need to download some software. All of this software is either freeware or shareware, and developed by independent software developers. I strongly suggest buying it, since it's not too expensive, and these guys need our support if they're going to keep working on these projects in their free time.

For the first part- Downloading:
1- Newsfire- for subscribing to Torrent feeds.
2- xTorrent- for downloading your files.

For the second part- archiving and tagging:
1- VisualHub- for re-encoding video.
2- Lostify- for editing the metadata on your files before adding to iTunes.

Part One- Downloading Torrents with RSS

The first thing you need to do is create an RSS feed to subscribe to. You can do this on www.tvrss.net.

1- Go to www.tvrss.net, and click on the 'Shows' link. You'll see a list of all the TV shows that TVrss has feeds for.

2- Choose the show you want to subscribe to. Let's choose 'Heroes' (BTW, if you're not watching Heroes, you're a retard. Now that Battlestar Galactica is off the air until January of next year, Heroes has become my favourite show). You'll be taken to a page that lists all available episodes for the show you chose.

3- At this point, the list of available episodes is duplicated, because there are many release groups releasing the same episodes at different qualities. You need to refine your search using the options located in the 'Search' area, at the top of the search results page. Choose a Distribution Group (I like EZTV for the most part, but they don't always distribute all the shows I watch), and choose a Quality setting (HRHD, HDTV, 720p, etc.), then press Search. You'll see refined search results. Each TV show is different, so you'll have to play around until you get what you want. A good rule of thumb is to switch up the search parameters until you get a list where there are either very few or no repeated episodes.

4- Once you have your list of episodes, hit the 'Search-based RSS Feed' link at the top of the Search Results list. This will generate an RSS feed for the show. If you use Safari or Firefox as your browser, it may give you the option to subscribe to this RSS feed. Ignore the hell out of it.

5- Copy the URL for the RSS feed from the address field in your browser (it should look something like this: http://tvrss.net/search/index.php?distribution_group=eztv&show_name=Heroes&show_name_exact=true&filename=&date=&quality=hdtv&release_group=&mode=rss)

6- Open Newsfire, and create a new feed. Paste the URL for the RSS feed into the Address field, and name your feed. NewsFire should automatically connect to the feed, so you should see the same results you got from tvrss.net after the feed loads.

7- Select your newly created feed in NewsFire, and go to Feeds> Edit selected Feed. Here you can set how often you want the feed to be refreshed. I have mine refreshing every 10 minutes, but that's just because I'm impatient. Make sure to check the box that says "Automatically download audio/video attachments. This will ensure that the .torrent file downloads onto your Desktop (or wherever you decide to set NewsFire to download files to) as soon as it's available.

8- Repeat steps 1-7 for each TV Show you want to add.

9- Open xTorrent, and go into the Preferences. In the Interface tab, check the box next to 'Load .torrents found in' and choose the same folder you're downloading .torrent files to from NewsFire. Also, check 'Delete original .torrent file once added to xTorrent', just to keep things nice and neat.

Now you're set up. NewsFire is constantly refreshing your feeds, so as soon as the .torrent file for a new episode is posted, NewsFire grabs it and puts it where xTorrent can find it, and start downloading the actual file. Once you've input all the shows you want to watch into NewsFire, this is pretty much hands-off.

Note: The newest version of xTorrent has the ability to subscribe to rss feeds, so theoretically you can simply put the rss feed you create from TVrss into xTorrent, and go without NewsFire altogether. However, xTorrent does not currently offer the option to auto-download any attached files like NewsFire does, so it makes little sense to do this if what you want is truly automatic downloading. The developer of xTorrent has said that he's going to put that feature into xTorrent in a future release, so when that happens, I'll be moving all my feeds from NewsFire to xTorrent, and eschewing NewsFire completely.

Part Two: Tagging and Archiving

This part requires some hands-on housekeeping for each file you download, so not everyone will want to go this far. I like it, since I'm a neat-freak, OCD'ed out mofo.

Now you have your files, and you can watch them with any media player (I like VLC player because it plays pretty much anything you throw at it), or through Front Row (if you place them in the Movies folder of your home directory). But I go an extra step, and add them to iTunes, so that they're nice and organized and I can keep them indefinitely, as well as back them up along with the rest of my iTunes content. In order to do this, you want to include the metadata in the file so that iTunes can identify whether it's a TV Show or a Movie, as well as identify the Season, Episode, etc. While you can edit metadata from within iTunes, by using the 'Get Info' command, iTunes is still a bit sketchy when it comes to TV Shows in particular, so I use an additional piece of software, Lostify, to edit the metadata before I add the files to iTunes. I also like to have everything in the same format, so I run the files through VisualHub even before I go into Lostify. Both VisualHub and Lostify create a new file when they process the old one, so you end up with two files which you'll eventually want to delete. It helps to have plenty of extra space in your hard drive to accommodate these temporary files.

1- Drag the file you downloaded with xTorrent onto the VisualHub icon, to place it in the queue. You can add as many files as you want, and VisualHub will batch process them all in one fell swoop. While VisualHub has a pre-set for iTunes, I use the pre-set for MP4 instead, since I'll be running the file throguh Lostify before I add it to iTunes anyway, and I want the best quality possible. Check the box for H.264 encoding (smaller file size, great quality), set your quality to 'Go Nuts', and hit the start button. VisualHub will create a new .mp4 file, so you can delete the one you downloaded after Visual Hub is done with it.

2- Now take the .mp4 file that VisualHub created and open it with Lostify. Here you can set all the metadata you need to properly archive your video within iTunes: Series name, Episode title and number, Season number, etc. Again, Lostify will create a new file, this time an .m4v file, so you can delete the .mp4 file you created with VisualHub after Lostify is done with it.

3- Add video to iTunes. Once you do this, the video should show up in iTunes, nicely catalogued, and should play in Front Row as well.

And that's it! Enjoy your purloined programming.

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