The exit of Kevin Mayer as Disney’s streaming chief and arrival as COO of Chinese tech giant ByteDance has more than a few media and tech minds trying to envision the road ahead for its best known platform, TikTok.
Launched in 2016, TikTok has enjoyed meteoric growth in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially among teenagers. Along with its Chinese version, called Douyin, it has more than 2 billion downloads globally, research firm SensorTower estimated in late April. In the U.S., it was downloaded 11 million times in March alone, double the rate in December.
Whether they are on the go or at home in quarantine, the young users of TikTok are highly coveted by marketers. As they track the sharp growth of the platform, though, media buyers have sought to gain a clearer picture of it — especially with the platform at the middle of China-U.S. tensions.
Congressional leaders late last year raised national security concerns and asked intelligence officials to determine whether TikTok poses national security risks. They cited its data collection practices and if it adheres to rules set by the Chinese government that limit what U.S. users could see. “TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote in a letter to the intelligence community.
With the government relations challenges mounting, the Madison Avenue and Hollywood aspects of TikTok will be showcased on June 25 at an online presentation during the NewFronts, an annual digital showcase for advertisers. The pitch will be an early signal of the strategic course being plotted by Mayer, 58. In a statement Monday, ByteDance founder-CEO Yiming Zhang saluted him as “one of the world’s most accomplished entertainment executives” and someone who can “take ByteDance’s portfolio of products to the next level.”
Mayer who rose through the strategic planning group at Disney, where he advised management on a series of major M&A deals, before heading up Direct-to-Consumer & International. Disney+, the centerpiece project of Mayer’s tenure at DTCI, launched last November and has racked up almost 55 million subscribers as of this month. He also oversaw Hulu, which has continued its steady growth as one of the “big three” subscription streaming services, along with Netflix and Amazon Prime, and is now solely controlled by Disney after more than a decade as a multi-company asset.
TikTok’s major Stateside boost came when ByteDance merged it with Musical.ly, a popular social media site based in Shanghai (but with corporate presence in Santa Monica and with a major U.S. and European followiing) that it acquired in 2017.
Blue-chip brands like Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay and many more have executed campaigns on TikTok, drawn by its inexpensive rates, and optimists say it is in a stage comparable with that of Snapchat, which faced skepticism before being embraced.
Quibi, a short-form video startup often compared with TikTok (much to Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s annoyance) has seen comparatively modest adoption since launching in early April launch. Katzenberg has blamed the soft start on COVID-19.
The pandemic hasn’t curtailed viewing or user adoption of TikTok, but it has ratcheted up tensions between China and the U.S. on broader levels, along with scrutiny of TikTok’s stance on privacy, security and censorship.
At the time of the congressional letter, TikTok stressed that all U.S. data user information is kept in the U.S. and that it is not subject to Chinese law. The company also said it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove content and would never do so.
But lawmakers also worry that the app could be vulnerable to potential foreign influence and disinformation campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 elections on U.S. social media platforms.
It was reported earlier this year that TikTok, along with Apple, declined a request to testify at a March congressional hearing that would have probed its relationships with China.
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