From a Lincoln Center stage, Jimmy Kimmel looked out at nearly 3,000 empty seats that, in any other year, would have been filled for The Walt Disney Company’s annual presentation to advertisers.
“I forgot to delete this from my iCal,” he said in video presented to the media giant’s advertising clients.
In reality, the host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on Disney’s ABC network, was nowhere near the New York landmark, having filmed his segment in front of a green screen at home.
The computer-generated set was one of many concessions that networks have made as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the upfronts, a series of springtime events where advertisers attend canapé-and-cocktail parties and celebrity-studded showcases meant to hype the fall television season.
“You want shrimp? Next year we’ll give you shrimp,” Mr. Kimmel told the ad buyers watching him from home this year. “But in the meantime, we need cash.”
The advertising industry is still feeling out how to do business in the pandemic. Major spenders such as Anheuser-Busch and L’Oreal scaled back marketing. Many others are shying away from long-term promises to buy commercial time and opting for deals made on short notice.
Flexibility has never been more important as companies scrambled to adjust their reactions to the news: first opting for caution during the pandemic and then, in recent days, pausing some ad campaigns out of sensitivity to the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.
With theaters closed in New York, media companies have resorted to less elaborate presentations to keep advertisers interested. Following events by NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS and other companies, Disney put on what it called a “virtual roadshow” made up of seven presentations filled with sizzle reels backed by triumphant music.
Executives hyped upcoming shows from various Disney channels: an FX dramas starring Jeff Bridges and Matthew McConaughey; a detective thriller on ABC from David E. Kelley; an ESPN documentary about Tom Brady. There were appearances Alex Rodriguez, Gordon Ramsay, David Muir, Robin Roberts and Bear Grylls.
In a presentation shown to reporters, Jeff Meacham, an actor from ABC’s “Black-ish,” had a conversation with a Barbie doll. Ryan Seacrest, who hosts “American Idol,” called Disney a “reach machine” for its popularity with multiple generations. Kerry Washington, who stars in “Little Fires Everywhere” on Hulu, talked up product placement opportunities.
The topic of production delays laid bare the effect of the pandemic. The new season of the National Geographic show “Genius,” featuring Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin, halted filming with two episodes left. “Supermarket Sweep,” an ABC game show hosted by Leslie Jones, was stalled just before filming was set to start. After the death of George Floyd, Disney added a note to the presentations expressing support for the black community, saying that the company was “struggling to make sense of all recent tragedies” and that it was “outraged by the killing of George Floyd among so many others.”
TV viewership has surged during the pandemic, but companies have slashed budgets for commercials by more than 40 percent, according to the research firm Kantar. Ad spots, which had grown steadily more expensive in recent years, have sold for 20 percent or more below their usual rates, media buyers said.
Disney’s ad revenue is expected to slump $1.4 billion this year and will not fully recover for another two years, according to a forecast from the research firm MoffettNathanson.
“Many advertisers are unable to commit to budgets, and many TV networks don’t have finished product to sell,” said Tim Nollen, an analyst with Macquarie Capital, in a note to investors last month.
Companies canceled between 15 and 20 percent of third quarter spending commitments with ABC, up from 5 to 10 percent normally, said Rita Ferro, Disney’s ad sales chief, in an interview.
Networks hope that sales recover as golf and other sports return. To lure advertising dollars, networks are dangling flexible payment terms.
“People and brands are starting to feel a little more — I’m not going to say ‘comfortable’ with the new normal, but understanding that they have to get back into the market,” Ms. Ferro said.
Disney has a new chief executive, Bob Chapek, who replaced Robert A. Iger in February and then had to announce that Disney’s profit fell more than 90 percent in its most recent quarter. The head of streaming, Kevin Mayer, left Disney last month to become the chief executive of TikTok.
The whiplash informed Mr. Kimmel’s virtual monologue, which was dotted with fake applause.
“We are a mess,” he said. “We don’t know who our boss is.”