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Disney’s streaming wunderkind joins TikTok

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Kevin Mayer. Image source: PRNewsfoto/ByteDance Ltd.

Kevin Mayer, who transformed Disney into a streaming powerhouse, is leaving to become the CEO of TikTok, a Chinese social video app that has surged in popularity and drawn scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers. Mayer will also be the COO of ByteDance, the Chinese conglomerate that owns TikTok.

Mayer was chairman of the direct-to-consumer and international divisions of the Walt Disney Company. Now, says Zhāng Yīmíng 张一鸣, founder and CEO of ByteDance, “Kevin’s wealth of experience building successful global businesses makes him an outstanding fit for our mission of inspiring creativity for users globally … I look forward to working very closely with Kevin on our global development and the next chapter of the ByteDance story.”

Mayer was passed over for the top job at Disney to succeed CEO Bob Iger. In February Disney announced Bob Chapek, chairman of its theme parks and consumer products businesses, would lead the company. Mayer oversaw Disney+, the company’s streaming service, and led its international expansion. Disney+ launched last November, and by April the platform had reached 50 million subscribers.

TikTok allows users to create short videos with music and special effects, and its usage has surged globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. The TikTok app has been downloaded 1.9 billion times worldwide, and in the first quarter of this year, it was downloaded more than any other app in the world according to Sensor Tower, an app market intelligence firm.

ByteDance has created a portfolio of apps, including dual versions of TikTok, one for China’s censored digital market (Douyin)and another for the rest of the world. When Zhang founded the Bytedance conglomerate in 2012, he said the company’s mission was to “combine the power of AI with the growth of mobile internet to revolutionize the way people consume and receive information.”

Last year Andreessen Horowitz partner Connie Chan wrote TikTok is indicative of a new era of AI consumer-based apps created in China but with global appeal.

“Not only is TikTok a China-based company whose product is winning hearts in the U.S. and around the world, it is, more importantly the first mainstream consumer app where artificial intelligence IS the product,” Chan said.

As CEO of TikTok and COO of ByteDance, Mayer will have to navigate the company’s growth in the U.S. where some lawmakers say it could present a threat to national security. Several U.S. government agencies have forbidden employees from downloading the TikTok app due to its ties to China.

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, introduced legislation in March prohibiting all federal employees “from downloading or using TikTok, or any successor application from the developer … with the exception of specified activities (e.g., cybersecurity research).”

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, and Senator Tom Cotton, Republican from Arkansas, have written a letter to the director of national intelligence expressing concerns about the TikTok app and requesting a review. The letter raises questions about data collection, potential censorship and foreign influence campaigns through the app, and oversight by the Chinese government:

“Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request.”

TikTok, meanwhile, has focused on increasing the app’s usage in the U.S., where it has exploded in popularity and become a part of teenage meme culture. There have been 172 million downloads in the U.S. of the TikTok app, according to Sensor Tower.

The company has made other high-profile hires in recent months, including veteran YouTube executive Vanessa Pappas, to help TikTok compete with American social media giants Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook. Snapchat added TikTok to its list of competitors in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year.

Mayer begins his new role at TikTok on June 1st.  

Shannon Van Sant

Shannon Van Sant is a journalist and documentary filmmaker in New York City, and previously reported from Beijing for CBS News and PBS television.

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