Every Tuesday, Beijing software sales executive Chen Hao heads straight home after work to sit at his laptop. It's not to catch up on office assignments, but to download the latest episode of Prison Break, which is shown just a couple of hours earlier in the US on the Fox network.
'I've been in 'prison' since it was first shown in 2005,' says the 28-year-old, referring to his obsession with the TV series. In addition, Chen has watched other hit US dramas including CSI, Lost and 24 - all downloaded from the internet.
His large new LCD television mostly gathers dust. 'I watch it only occasionally for football matches. Other programmes are too boring,' he says.
Thanks to the tight control over domestic TV programming and loose copyright laws, increasing numbers of educated young people such as Chen are turning to popular US entertainment, available free through internet downloading services such as BitTorrent. And the exposure to western programmes is shaping how they live.
The faster pace and suspense of US productions are part of their appeal. But young mainlanders also view the shows as a way to improve their English and glean knowledge about the American way of life.
'You get to know many aspects of American society, such as the political system, the judiciary, culture, history and so on,' Chen says. 'Some things are related to our lives although they may not work the same way here.' For example, he finds some ideas from Prison Break relevant to his sales job: the strategies that its hero Michael Scofield used to persuade and motivate other prisoners to join his escape plan can be applied to win contracts with clients. 'It's more interesting than marketing textbooks,' Chen says.
The founder of popular fan site meijumi.com, who goes by the name Campus, describes the shows' influence in an e-mail interview: 'After watching a lot of American TV series, one will feel like an expert on Americana. His horizon is broadened, he's better able to appreciate humour ... he prefers western music. Generally speaking, it's a process of becoming westernised and more liberal.'
It's also inspired fans to copy aspects of their favourite shows. Admirers of the sitcom Friends have imitated the characters' lifestyle by sharing flats close to each other, report local media. Last month Prison Break fans gathered to test the ideas introduced in the show, such as making a counterfeit key using soap and a toothbrush handle, and knocking down a wall by drilling a few strategic holes.
'By conducting these experiments, we have more interaction with the show,' says its organiser, who uses the internet name Prisonbreak 250.
Because of strict censorship, few American TV programmes can be imported or shown on mainland television. But loopholes in local copyright law mean the country's 162 million internet users can download American shows without getting into trouble.
Fans even work together to provide Chinese subtitles so the programmes can reach a wider domestic audience. Volunteer translation teams, such as Eden Garden, Fengruan and Renren, compete to deliver the earliest or best subtitles for the shows. Chinese subtitles were ready within 3? hours of the latest episode of Prison Break being shown in the US, for instance.
The translation is usually done by a team of four to eight people. In addition, IT-proficient volunteers help compress the Chinese characters so they can be delivered with the video images.
Many translators say they're willing to devote long hours without pay because they're fans. 'I joined [the translation team] in 2004 because I love American shows,' says Liang Liang of Renren, a group that subtitles more than 50 shows. 'We can't wait for mainland television stations to import them. The approval process takes too long.'
Although the volunteers aren't trained, many viewers say their translation is better than that provided by state-owned productions. The amateurs feel free to use internet language and colloquial phrases when translating US slang, which helps mainlanders relate better. State teams stick to old-school doctrines, however, leading viewers to complain about inaccurate translations for the few US shows broadcast on the mainland, including Desperate Housewives, shown two years ago on CCTV 8.
The translation groups realise they're in a legal grey area but take comfort in the fact that they're adhering to mainland law because they release only subtitles rather than a complete video and, most importantly, their service is free and makes no profits. 'There's still no law to regulate this yet,' Liang says. 'Once there is one, we won't be able to exist.'
Yin Hong, a professor of media studies at Tsinghua University, acknowledges US TV attracts viewers because of the better production values - good scripts, higher quality images and more diverse genres. But their growing appeal also stems from the spread of US popular culture in a globalised world, Yin says. Fans are 'a well-educated group that has been under the influence of English-language culture for a long time'.
Surveys conducted by internet forums support Yin's view. A recent poll of visitors to meijumi.com found that about 80 per cent hold a bachelor's degree. The majority are university students and professionals aged between 18 and 30, usually from major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. A survey on ydy.com had similar findings. 'Many [fans] have learned English since childhood. Some dream of going abroad or being employed by multinationals,' Yin says Peking University law student Li Xia, for one, looks to legal and crime dramas such as Law and Order to give her a better idea of the US justice system, enabling her to be better prepared to apply to a law school in the US. 'They're not only entertainment, but down-to-earth cases for me,' she says.
But whatever insight the US shows may offer, the main force driving mainland audiences towards alternative entertainment is the tight grip censors exert on programming. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the country's major censorship body, keeps a close eye on material aired on about 3,000 state-owned TV stations. Limits on sensitive subjects such as politics, sexuality and violence force the stations to rely on tepid soap operas and copycat game shows that are screened repeatedly.
'Mainland TV shows are mostly historical dramas and 'red' classics,' says Campus. 'There are no crime stories, no triangular relationships, no extramarital affairs, no puppy love and no politics. They're too harmonious for us.'