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NBC sets Olympics opening ceremony record, amid criticism over delayed airing

Fireworks light up the Olympic Stadium and Orbital during the 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012, in London. Michael Steele

(CBS/AP) A total of 40.7 million people tuned in to NBC to watch Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" Opening Ceremony spectacular on Friday, becoming the most-watched opening ceremony of any summer or winter Olympics.

Pictures: London Olympics Opening Ceremony
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The Nielson company said London's opener 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 ratings didn't come without criticism. NBC, 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.

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.