An opening ceremony from the mother country with a Beatle, a queen and Mr. Bean proved irresistible for viewers in the United States, with a record-setting 40.7 million people watching NBC's first night of summer Olympics coverage.
The Nielsen company said Saturday that London's opener was the most-watched opening ceremony of any summer or winter Olympics. It topped the previous mark of 39.8 million people who watched the 1996 games in Atlanta begin, and the 34.9 million who watched the colorful first night from Beijing four years ago.
The London ceremony featured an unusual made-for-TV stunt featuring actor Daniel Craig portraying James Bond escorting the real-life Queen Elizabeth II to the ceremony and ended with Paul McCartney's anthemic "Hey Jude." But according to Twitter, the biggest spike in tweets came when actor Rowan Atkinson ("Mr. Bean") appeared in a "Chariots of Fire" homage.
An estimated 5 million comments about the opening ceremony were made on social media, according to the research company Bluefin Labs. It was more interesting to women, apparently, as 58 percent of the comments were from women and 42 percent from men, Bluefin said.
It was the most-watched television event in the U.S. since the winter, when 39.9 million people watched the Grammy Awards and 39.3 million saw the Oscars.
The results were a good sign for NBC and broadcast TV in general, which is increasingly finding that big events draw people to the screen more than regular entertainment programming — most likely encouraged by multi-screen experiences, or people conversing through social media while watching television.
NBC Universal also earned a measure of redemption from critics. The company, which began streaming all of the Olympics competition online live on Saturday, was blistered on Twitter Friday by people who wondered why the opening ceremony wasn't shown live (it was aired on NBC on tape delay, since London's time zone is five hours ahead of the eastern United States). But four years ago in Beijing, NBC learned such complaints only increased buzz and made people more interested in watching it on TV in prime time.
"The audience number for the London opening ceremony is a great early sign that our strategy of driving people to watch NBC in prime time is working," said Mark Lazarus, chairman of the NBC Sports Group.
Regionally, the top ratings Friday night were recorded in San Diego, Washington, D.C. and West Palm Beach, Fla., Nielsen said.
Despite selling more than $1 billion worth of advertising for the London Olympics, NBC Universal has said it expects to lose money on the games. Higher ratings, however, could help NBC earn more money by selling additional advertising at a higher cost as the games go on.