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WHEN A MASSIVE FIRE ERUPTED at Mantralaya, the headquarters of the Maharashtra state government in Mumbai, shortly before 3 pm on 21 June, national news channels interrupted their broadcasts with live coverage of the blaze. Producers at Times Now, which calls itself “India’s most-watched English news channel”, borrowed footage from a Hindi channel until their broadcast vans reached the place at 3.20 pm, and the channel’s reporters and cameramen began to record pictures and describe the scene. A jittery camera found frightened people inching away from blazing windows on a ledge high above. A man dressed in white, just out of reach of the firemen, swung down from an air conditioner’s holding cage, put one foot on an open window frame a floor below, and gingerly reached out to another window, a few feet away, with the toes of his other foot. Nothing but the ground lay beneath. His desperate bid to stay alive replayed every few minutes, looped on a split screen alongside live images of the spreading flames.
Times Now, which is owned by Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited, publishers of the Times of India and the Economic Times, had earned a reputation for playing news fast and hard. On this occasion, the network was late to arrive at Mantralaya, but once the cameras were ready and footage streamed in to Times Now’s main bureau in central Mumbai, the operational machinery that set it apart from other channels came alive. Raw pictures of the fire arrived at the bureau’s “ingest room”, where two technicians were standing by. Under normal circumstances, footage is pushed through from here to the edit room; edited clips are conveyed onward to the output desk, and then launched into space from the production control room. For this event, the machine was primed to behave less like a conveyor belt and more like a catapult. Incoming footage was diverted straight to the production room, with words tacked on remotely as the digital footage streamed by. The entire chain of events, from recording to broadcast, took less than 30 seconds. This streamlined process was the primary reason editors and reporters said Times Now was unmatched in live coverage; as one former Times Now journalist told me, “There is no bureaucratic delay, as there is with other channels.” But nimbleness was only one reason why Times Now had consistently beaten its more established rivals in the ratings from late 2008 until early 2012. The frenetic coverage of the Mantralaya blaze demonstrated the channel’s other strength: a flair for creating drama.