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London's opening ceremonies fall short of lowered expectations (updated with final ratings)

Queen Elizabeth II arrives safely in her royal box after "jumping" from a chopper during Friday's opening ceremonies from London. Photos: Ed Bark

Let the games begin. Please.

Few if any expected Friday night's Summer Olympics opening ceremonies from London to equal or surpass the jaw-dropping 2008 spectacle from Beijing.

But even with low expectations firmly in place, the Brits came up way short in the wow department. Not that it ruins the Olympics or anything. And NBC's bottom-line imperatives were very well-satisfied when the national Nielsen ratings made London's show-and-tell the most-watched summer opening ceremony ever, besting the 1996 Atlanta games by 40.7 to 39.8 million viewers while Beijing slid to No. 3 (34.9 million).

NBC's four-and-a-half-hour taped telecast presented the trio of Bob Costas, Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira as commentators, with Ryan Seacrest back in the studio for an interview with ace U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps. Costas didn't step in until the elongated "Parade of Nations," leaving Lauer and Vieira to preside over what was supposed to be the night's big Queen Elizabeth II/James Bond tongue-wagger. They bungled it.

Coming out of a McDonald's commercial, the mostly filmed gambit at first seemed like a commercial itself. But the appearance of Daniel Craig as James Bond eventually made it appear otherwise. He strode into the Queen's Palace and waited patiently for Liz II to acknowledge him with her only speaking lines: "Good evening, Mr. Bond."

The two of them then boarded a helicopter in daylight hours, although it was obvious that the Queen sitting beside him was a stand-in. Day magically shifted to night as the chopper hovered over Olympic Stadium. The fake Queen jumped first, to the strains of the James Bond theme. As she and Bond descended into the stadium, Lauer and Vieira actually seemed to believe it was all for real. Or at least that's what they sold to viewers.

"Are you kidding me?!" Lauer began.

"Now that's a good sport," said Vieira.

Lauer then said in all seriousness, "Queen Elizabeth II making perhaps the most memorable entrance to an opening ceremony ever. This is what they'll be talking about in newspapers around the world tomorrow."

He continued to coo, noting that the Queen had gone from "royalty to rock star" during her recent well-received "Jubilee" celebration. "Tonight she's a Bond girl."

"People who know her say that she has a wicked sense of humor," Vieira added. "And you are seeing it on display tonight."

They let that hang there as the Queen made her way to the royal box. Viewers with even minimal powers of observation surely knew that someone other than the queen had parachuted out of that chopper. But Lauer and Vieira made it seem as though they had bought it whole cloth before he finally said off-handedly that the Queen's derring-do was "thanks to a classic Andy Boyle illusion."

Their oft-inane commentary leading up to this point made one wonder whether a producer had bellowed into Lauer's earpiece, "Hey, that wasn't really her!" He must have known that. Right? If so, both Lauer and Vieira played incredibly dumb before giving up the ghost with a brief comment that many viewers may not have caught.

Boyle, chief director of the opening ceremony, is best known as the director of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. He worked a decent amount of spectacle into Friday's marathon proceedings. But too often the ground-level song and dance resembled a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, to which Lauer and Vieira certainly are accustomed.

Costas took over for Vieira during the Parade of Nations," teaming with Lauer for a constant stream of verbiage while NBC piled on a heavy load of commercials.

Viewers were repeatedly told by Costas that this was the briskest such alphabetical parade he'd ever witnessed. But it still seemed to last forever, even if some of the 204 nations got only a second or two of air time. At one point it was Bangladesh/Barbados/Belarus, which might have made a good title for a good kharma song by the late George Harrison.

As promised in an earlier interview, Costas noted that the International Olympic Committee had decided not to observe a moment of silence on the 40th anniversary of the terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Despite earlier commemorations, most recently before a small group of athletes in the Olympic Village, many believe that "tonight, with the world watching, is the true time and place to remember those who were lost. And how and why they died," Costas said as the Israeli team marched into view. He then paused for about three seconds before saying, "We're back in London after this." Cue the commercials.

Whatever the shortcomings of the pageantry at hand, all can be forgiven if the lighting of the Olympic flame rises to the occasion. But the majesty of this climactic event went into hiding when organizers decided to let it be gang-lit by seven young prospective British Olympians.

Consider the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when the legendary decathlete Rafer Johnson navigated an imposing flight of stairs to light the torch. Or para-lympian Antonio Rebollo, who made the 1992 summer ceremony from Barcelona soar when he shot a flaming arrow from a considerable distance over a natural gas cauldron. Muhammad Ali moved millions by lighting the torch at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. (He also attended the London opening ceremony, looking sadly infirm in sunglasses.) And the 2002 winter games in Vancouver were buoyed by the victorious 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team rejoining to do the honors.

The kids who lit the torch Friday night no doubt will remember it for the rest of their lives. But will anyone else?

Paul McCartney led yet another "Hey Jude" sing-along Friday night.

Paul McCartney, introduced without the "Sir" by the public address announcer, capped the ceremonies with "Hey Jude," which pretty much has morphed into elevator music over the years.

He obviously couldn't have rocked out with "Helter Skelter." But as one unclebarky.com reader noted, why not try to re-tool the lyrics to "Back In the U.S.S.R.?" Or perhaps better yet, write an original composition in hopes it would stand the test of time.

McCartney instead delivered the ol' "Nah, nah, nah, nah-nah-nah-nah" in an at times unsteady voice. The emotion of the moment no doubt played a role. But it got pretty cheesy when he exhorted the assembled athletes to join him, first "just the men, just the fellas" and then "just the women, just girls."

Some athletes could be seen doing so, but many are way too young to perhaps even know the song. McCartney at this point seemed a bit like a hoary Vegas lounge act, exhorting the tourists to let loose before generously tipping their waiters.

More enjoyable, from this perspective at least, was an earlier performance of The Beatles' "Come Together" by the Arctic Monkeys, whose lead singer, Alex Turner, replicated a very early John Lennon in black leather jacket and slicked hair.

The opening ceremonies were notably short on stage performances by singular performers. The available British talent is enormous in this respect. Where was Adele? Or Mick Jagger? Or Coldplay? Or Elton John? On and on. Instead we got piped-in music during an elongated, not so magical trip through various stages of pop culture.

Had the London opening ceremonies been a fish, Beijing would have thrown it back. Still, there's no use crying over spilt milk, as the Brits say. The 2012 Summer Olympics will rise or fall with their competitions over the next 16 days. It's always nice to make a great first impression, but you can't always get what you want. And at least the fireworks were really cool.