As the 2010 retrospectives roll by, one of the more fascinating statistics out there is online downloads. We examined the top 10 pirated movies of 2010 last week, and now BitTorrent observer TorrentFreak has released its list of the most pirated  elevision shows. There’s not a lot of surprises, but the sheer volume of illicit downloads is impressive.

Network dramas Lost and Heroes take the top two spots, while cable smash-hit Dexter finishes in the money. The latter doesn’t surprise, since Dexter is only available on premium channel Showtime or pay services like iTunes and Netflix. But the top two shows, together totaling more than ten million downloads, are shown on free broadcast TV in the U.S. on ABC and NBC respectively. They’re also shown for free on both the network websites and joint-effort streaming service Hulu for weeks after their television premiere. The same can be said for eight out of the top ten pirated shows.

This brings the need for illegal downloads into question, not to mention the wisdom – Heroes was cancelled this year after its fourth season, and if TorrentFreak’s analysis is accurate, more people watched it via illegal download than on television. If fans wish to keep their favorite TV shows in the black and on the schedule, they should consider watching or at least recording them on their first television run.

Here’s the full list:

1. Lost – 5,940,000 downloads

2. Heroes – 5,480,000 downloads

3. Dexter – 3,880,000 downloads

4. The Big Bang Theory – 3,270,000 downloads

5. House – 2,610,000 downloads

6. How I Met Your Mother – 2,490,000 downloads

7. 24 – 2,240,000 downloads

8. True Blood – 1,920,000 downloads

9. Glee – 1,700,000 downloads

10. Family Guy – 1,620,000 downloads

The rest of the list is made up of predictably popular network comedies and dramas, with the exception of HBO’s True Blood. Surprise hit Glee is the only new show on the list, and it’s an oddball in a demographic that skews towards the younger male crowd. Comedy favorites The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and Family Guy are well-represented, along with House and the final season of 24.

Again, all of these except for True Blood are available as free streams or cheap, legal downloads 24 hours after their initial television run. That may be why torrent downloads are down about 10% from last year, when Heroes topped the list with 6,580,000 downloads – although once again, more people downloaded the superhero drama than watched its TV airings.

Another possible explanation for the dip in torrented shows is a rise of illegal stream sites, which broadcast full TV episodes commercial-free and on-demand. These are becoming more popular because better streaming technology and more bandwidth allows for faster, better viewing. Streaming sites are also much harder to track, emboldening copyright violators who might fear retribution from intellectual property owners.

Source: TorrentFreak