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Kevin Mayer, who was passed over for the top job at Walt Disney Co., is becoming chief executive of TikTok, in a jump from one of the entertainment industry's most venerable names to one of its buzziest new arrivals.
The longtime media executive, recently in charge of the Disney+ streaming service, is joining Chinese tech giant Bytedance Ltd. in newly created roles as chief operating officer and head of its blockbuster short video app TikTok. He will be in charge of Bytedance's global expansion, including in its music and gaming businesses. He starts June 1.
Both TikTok and Disney+ have seen pandemic-fueled surges in popularity as people stuck in lockdowns have been glued to their phones and TVs for entertainment.
Mr. Mayer is currently chairman of the entertainment giant's direct-to-consumer and international segment, including Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, making him one of the highest-profile American executives to move to a Chinese company.
He had been considered the in-house favorite to get the Disney CEO job by many colleagues within Hollywood, given the role he played in orchestrating Disney's biggest deals and his recent work in charge of its streaming strategy. But in late February, Disney said that Bob Chapek, then the head of its parks and consumer products division, would become CEO.
Bringing in a seasoned American could boost Bytedance's recent efforts to distance itself -- and TikTok specifically -- from its Chinese roots.
"Bytedance and TikTok are enormously powerful opportunities," Mr. Mayer said in an interview. "I think the business is growing rapidly and serving a need."
Mr. Mayer said he would be growing Bytedance's various businesses and seeking new opportunities. "I will be looking at TikTok and looking at closely related and adjacent businesses that are large," he said. "Gaming, music comes to mind. Video, writ large, is an interesting opportunity."
Known for its short, often lighthearted videos, the TikTok app has been downloaded over 2 billion times on Google Play and Apple Inc.'s App Store since 2017, according to research firm Sensor Tower. In the first three months of 2020, TikTok racked up more than 315 million downloads, the most of any app in a single quarter.
In joining Bytedance, Mr. Mayer will help run one of the world's most valuable private companies, estimated at $75 billion, and one that boasts more than 700 million global daily active users of its apps. Bytedance has a stable of apps and services, including a Chinese version of TikTok called Douyin.
But Bytedance isn't consistently profitable, The Wall Street Journal has reported, and a key part of Mr. Mayer's mandate will be generating more revenue from its millions of users, many of whom are teenagers with limited spending power.
Bytedance is facing challenges in the U.S., where TikTok's growing popularity has attracted the scrutiny of American lawmakers concerned that its Chinese roots could lead the app to censor content to appease Beijing or share information with Chinese authorities. The company has said Beijing doesn't dictate content decisions and that no data on American users is stored in China.
Disney+, the flagship streaming service Mr. Mayer oversaw, has long been considered a key element of the company's strategy to compete against at-home rivals like Netflix Inc. He leaves at a fraught moment: Even as the service adds subscribers at a clip, it has become all the more vital as other Disney revenue streams crater during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Mayer, 58 years old, first joined Disney in 1993 after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School. He left for a short period before returning in 2005, where he rose to become one of Disney Executive Chairman Robert Iger's most crucial deputies.
Mr. Mayer played a key role in the acquisitions that have built Disney into an entertainment colossus: Pixar Entertainment, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm Ltd. and the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox.
In recent years, as Mr. Iger repeatedly delayed his own retirement, Mr. Mayer emerged as a top candidate for the CEO job. Many within Disney were surprised earlier this year when Mr. Iger said he was going to become executive chairman of the company, with Mr. Chapek becoming CEO. Even Mr. Mayer was caught off guard when the news was announced, people close to him said.
The franchise machine that Mr. Mayer helped build at Disney -- one in which a blockbuster movie can spawn sequels, toy sales and theme-park rides -- has been tested by the pandemic, which has closed theaters, disrupted supply chains and shut down Disney parks.
But Mr. Mayer's portfolio at Disney+ has been a bright spot, especially as families stuck at home sign up in droves. Disney said earlier this month that the service, launched in November, had 54.5 million subscribers.
Putting Mr. Mayer in charge of Disney's streaming efforts also gave him operational experience at the company where he previously had none. At Disney+, he managed not only executives in charge of producing movies and TV shows for the service, but also engineering teams brought on to build its back end.
At TikTok, he will be overseeing a range of Bytedance businesses including gaming, music and apps such as Helo, an entertainment platform popular in India. He is reporting directly to Bytedance founder and global chief executive Zhang Yiming.
Mr. Zhang, the Bytedance founder, in a Monday statement described Mr. Mayer as "incredibly well placed to take ByteDance's portfolio of products to the next level."