When Kevin Mayer left his big job running Disney’s direct-to-consumer streaming business in mid-May, it was because he had an even bigger job to look forward to: one that would involve running fast-growing social video app TikTok while serving as COO of its $100 billion parent company, ByteDance.
But during his first three months as TikTok CEO, the app became a pawn in President Trump’s battle with China. And Mayer — who in informing staff about his resignation Aug. 26 cited changes to “the global role I signed up for” — ultimately became a casualty. “The entire job that he was hired to do has dramatically changed, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s leaving,” says LightShed media analyst Rich Greenfield. A TikTok spokeswoman declined to make Mayer or interim CEO Vanessa Pappas available for interviews.
Indeed, Mayer’s role began to look a lot different following Trump’s August executive order to ban TikTok after 90 days. The move all but forced ByteDance to seek a quick acquisition of the app’s U.S. business, which will significantly limit the global CEO’s scope. (TikTok also has been banned from India, its top market per download data from Sensor Tower.)
Oracle and a teamed-up Microsoft and Walmart were said to be bidders for TikTok at press time, but new Chinese export restrictions have added a wrinkle to a potential deal. ByteDance had chosen a bidder and could have revealed the decision as soon as Sept. 1, CNBC reported earlier this week. Now, per the Wall Street Journal, the company is trying to figure out what the Chinese regulations, focused on technology exports, mean for the sale of the algorithm that personalizes TikTok’s “For You” feed and helps make the app so engaging. Any buyer looking to continue to operate TikTok in the U.S. would likely want access to that algorithm.
Trump’s argument for the ban is that TikTok poses a national security threat, a claim Clayton Dube, director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, calls dubious: “It’s an unusual circumstance, and in some ways it’s reciprocal because it’s treating the companies of a rival in a discriminatory way. It’s similar to what China has done.”
TikTok argued in its Aug. 24 lawsuit against Trump that the ban is a pretext for furthering his “broader campaign of anti-China rhetoric in the run-up to the U.S. election.”
TikTok appears to have wound up in Trump’s line of fire because it’s the first Chinese-owned app to gain major influence in the U.S., where in the past two years its base has grown 800 percent to 100 million monthly active users. Those devoted TikTok users, fearing a U.S. shutdown, may cheer if a buyer emerges. But Mayer, who has led the business through these turbulent summer months, won’t be there to enjoy the celebration.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.