Popular culture is one way to get a handle on a specific time in America. It’s easy to think about past decades in terms of what was playing in movie theaters and on television.

The 1990s were dominated by “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” while “Cheers,” “Happy Days,” and “All in the Family” each served as a form of shorthand for the years before then.

Online media have made that method of gauging society’s mood more difficult, with television ratings failing to reflect what audiences download or stream. The most-watched nonsports shows on TV in 2012 were “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory,” according to Entertainment Weekly. However, the Nielsen ratings fail to reflect the popular consciousness because they don’t include content downloaded illegally, an increasingly popular way to watch TV.

Unlike the Nielsen ratings, there is no single comprehensive way to track which BitTorrent files are most searched for and downloaded. Even so, data assembled by TorrentFreak found that the most-sought television show was “The Walking Dead.” Popular films included “Ted,” “Taken 2,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “The Avengers.”

TV shows are generally more popular than movies on BitTorrent sites such as Kat.ph because of high cable prices and the serialization of the most-discussed dramas. After “The Walking Dead,” the TV programs most searched for were “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

Oddly, while “The Walking Dead” was a more popular search item on Kat.ph, “Game of Thrones” was the most pirated television show of 2012, averaging 4.28 million downloads for each episode.

No music-related terms were among the 50 most popular searches, although operating systems such as "Windows 8” were close to the top, along with video-quality queries such as “DVD Rip” and “720p.”