Lynette Rice
August 03, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Piracy — or publicity? Last week, a handful of buzz-generating fall pilots — like NBC’s Bionic Woman, ABC’s Pushing Daisies, and The CW’s Reaper — were mysteriously leaked for illegal download on the Internet. And surprisingly, the networks aren’t all that upset. Though they continue to head off piracy by watermarking pilots that are sent to critics and advertisers months before the shows premiere, TV insiders admit that online leaks — even the unauthorized ones — aren’t exactly the worst thing that can happen to a network. At a time when it’s getting harder than ever to attract viewers (this fall, 29 new series will elbow their way onto the schedule), the common sentiment is that any kind of early attention is better than no attention at all. Which explains why studios including Warner Bros. screened the first hours of new shows like NBC’s Chuck and Fox’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles at Comic-Con. While TV industry legal teams pull leaked pilots from the Web when possible, one network marketing chief admits to seeing a bright side: ”Those alpha bloggers are a very influential group of people. It’s important to get the message out there.” The key, of course, is timing: A pilot that leaks too close to its premiere date could attract a smaller audience when it hits the airwaves. Still, the nets have no plans to keep ahead of pirates by streaming the pilots on their own websites — not yet, at least. ”There’s a sense of discovery online that consumers like,” argues the marketing chief. ”That sense of adventure would be lost if we started [posting].”

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