LONDON – As senior BBC executives joined a conference call to discuss the previous night's spectacular London Olympics opening ceremony, they teased each other nervously over the possible size of their television audience.
"We were joking and saying what we thought the audience might be," said Roger Mosey, the director of London 2012 for the BBC.
Most BBC managers agreed that 20 million viewers would be a success and that 21 million would be a major boost for the broadcaster, which screened the lengthy spectacle long past midnight on its flagship channel, BBC One.
Official figures have now come in: The opening ceremony hit a peak of 26.9 million viewers — Britain's largest TV audience since 1998.
A big success. And one that's desperately needed.
The state-funded broadcaster is grappling with a government-imposed freeze on the mandatory 145.50 pounds ($230) annual fee paid by TV users across the country that provides most of its 3.5 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) budget. About 2,000 of the company's 22,900 employees are being cut, while some services have been closed and buildings are being sold off.
The broadcaster is also reeling from sharp criticism over its handling of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee in June, when coverage of a showpiece river pageant — which saw a flotilla of 1,000 boats sail down the River Thames — was widely derided as lacking in gravitas.
"The pageant, everyone agrees, was not our finest hour," Mosey said.
They appeared to get the tone wrong, treating the pageant to mark the queen's 60th anniversary on the throne more as an entertainment piece than as a ceremonial milestone in British history.
Yet so far, the BBC's ambitious — and technically tricky — Olympic plan has worked almost without a flaw. The broadcaster is screening 24 extra channels and 24 often simultaneous online streams, with the goal of offering the most comprehensive coverage ever of events at a Summer Games.
Ivor Gaber, professor of media and politics at Britain's University of Bedfordshire, said a strong Olympic performance would boost the BBC as it prepares for the once-a-decade government review of its services and mission in 2016, and tough negotiations over its license fee.
"A successful Olympics — and though it is early days, all the signs look good so far — would be a great assistance as it seeks to defend its role as the national broadcaster," Gaber said.
The BBC, which also holds Olympics rights through to 2020, paid about 60 million pounds ($94 million) to broadcast the London Olympics.
The BBC's success with Friday's opening ceremony offered a sharp contrast to NBC in the United States, which has fielded plenty of gripes over its time-delayed coverage of the London Olympics. NBC has chosen to record major events and show them in U.S. prime time, rather than screen them live.
"It wasn't just getting 27 million," Mosey said of the opening ceremony audience. "It's the fact that it stayed at over 20 million for such a long time, and that it was delivering 19 million at half-past midnight that really knocked us out."
Almost 2 million more viewers have watched the opening ceremony since then on the BBC's online iPlayer catch-up service — a record for the system.
The BBC also broke the record for the number of unique browsers — its online audience measurement — visiting its sports website on Saturday and Sunday, and then smashed the figures on Monday and Wednesday, as viewers returned to work, and used office computers to keep track of Olympic action. A total of 10.4 million users — including 2.6 million users from outside of the U.K. — logged on Wednesday.
A video that was a highlight of Friday's opening ceremony, the BBC-produced cameo in which the queen herself spoke to fictional spy James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) and then appeared to jump out of a helicopter with him, has been viewed more than 1.2 million times on the broadcaster's YouTube channel.
The BBC's dedicated Olympics app — which allows users inside the U.K. to watch 24 streams of Olympic events on their mobile device — has been downloaded 1.15 million times.
"You don't think that you can pull off the trick of both delivering those big online audiences and television audiences, but actually the past few days has shown that you can," said Mosey, who previously led the broadcaster's coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2006 soccer World Cup.