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Kevin Mayer. Image: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Walt Disney Co’s top streaming executive, Kevin Mayer, will leave the entertainment and theme parks giant to become the CEO of TikTok, the popular video app owned by China’s ByteDance, the companies said on Monday.

Mayer led the successful launch of the Disney+ streaming service in November but in February was passed over as Disney’s new chief executive.

Mayer’s appointment will be effective 1 June, when he will also become chief operating officer of ByteDance, the Chinese company said.

TikTok, which allows users to create short videos with special effects, has become wildly popular with US teenagers doing viral challenges that pair dances with music clips from the app’s library. TikTok has hinted at ambitions to build a music streaming business, announcing in January that it was partnering with UK-based music rights agency Merlin to expand its musical selections.

ByteDance’s Chinese ownership, however, has sparked concerns in Washington about TikTok’s handling of personal data. The company uses sophisticated artificial intelligence to make video recommendations based on users’ behaviour on the app.

Security review

In November, the US government launched a national security review of ByteDance’s US$1-billion acquisition of social media app Musical.ly, which became TikTok. Two senators introduced a bill to ban federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued phones.

One of those senators, Republican Josh Hawley, said TikTok previously told him its executives could not testify before congress because they were located in China.

“But this new executive lives in the USA,” Hawley wrote on Twitter on Monday. “I look forward to hearing from him. Under oath.”

TikTok has over a billion users

To appease concerns, ByteDance has stepped up efforts to separate TikTok from much of its Chinese businesses and has made several high-profile executive hires in recent months. It appointed former Microsoft intellectual property chief Erich Andersen as global general counsel in January, after hiring Vanessa Pappas, a veteran YouTube executive, to run its US operations last year.

Speculation over Mayer’s future began swirling in February after Disney named Robert Chapek as CEO. Mayer, who has a “loud and forceful” style, according to a former Disney executive, was seen as a deal maker who had only recently been put in charge of a large profit-and-loss division. His relative lack of operating experience was a main reason he did not get the top job, the former executive said.

A ByteDance spokesman said the company had “no reservations” about Mayer’s operational experience. “Any company in our sector would be delighted have him on board.”

Under Mayer’s leadership, Disney+ collected more than 50 million subscribers in five months.

Disney named Rebecca Campbell, a 23-year company veteran, to replace Mayer as head of the direct-to-consumer and international division, which includes the streaming media units Disney is counting on to drive future growth.  — Reported by Katie Paul and Lisa Richwine, (c) 2020 Reuters

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