Britain has become the world leader in TV piracy as thousands of viewers download illegal versions of 24, The Simpsons and the The OC over the internet.

About a fifth of all illegally copied programmes are distributed in the UK, with an estimated 80,000 Britons downloading high quality copies of their favourite series free of charge before watching them without any interruption by advertisements.

Helped by the spread of broadband, TV piracy has increased by 150% in the last year, according to Envisional, an internet monitoring company. It estimates 95,000 copies of the latest episode of 24, the most popular pirated show, have been illegally distributed over the internet, compared with 35,000 made of the previous series a year ago.

“It is as simple, if not more simple, as programming your VCR,” said David Price of Envisional. “You just go to a file-sharing website and click on a link.”

TV piracy is more prevalent in Britain than the US because many popular American shows are not aired in Europe until months after their first showing.

“Americans are watching them on TV when they should but there is a time lag before you get these shows in the UK,” Mr Price said. “People are such big fans of programmes like 24 they want them now rather than waiting two or three months.”

Television programmes can be watched through a computer with a TV tuner card, available at any computer store. Organised groups of “cappers” in the US record shows when they are first broadcast and place high-quality files on the internet.

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