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TikTok’s Poaching of Disney’s Streaming Boss May Sting

Tara Lachapelle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The streaming-TV business has never been more important to Walt Disney Co. than it is now, and yet it’s letting its most important streaming executive flee the Magic Kingdom. Time will tell whether that was a mistake.

Kevin Mayer, who had oversight of Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, has left to become CEO of the buzzworthy video-sharing platform TikTok, as well as chief operating officer of TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance Ltd. His departure comes as Disney’s emerging streaming division takes center stage and the Covid-19 pandemic delivers a blow to its more established lines of business, including its theme parks, cruise ships, sports networks and other sources of TV-advertising revenue.

Mayer was considered by many to be the leading candidate to replace Disney CEO Bob Iger, but the board went with another pick. Bob Chapek, who had been running Disney’s parks and resorts, became CEO of the entire company in February, an announcement that caught investors off-guard and predated the virus-related U.S. lockdowns. As I wrote at the time, Chapek in some ways represents Disney’s past, while Mayer represents its future as a company with a strong focus on entertainment content and streaming. That’s even more true now if the pandemic has lasting effects on things like theme-park and movie-theater attendance. Iger has stayed on as executive chairman, though the recent setbacks appear to have drawn him back into more of a hands-on role, while Chapek focuses on getting the parks back up and running. (Disney World begins its phased reopening Wednesday; Shanghai Disney has already reopened.)

Mayer’s role at Disney is being filled by Rebecca Campbell, who has spent 23 years at the company. Though she has a lower profile, Campbell played a key role in launching Disney+ in Europe and was most recently president of Disneyland Resort. Disney+ has 54.5 million subscribers, but its relatively smaller content library and kid-heavy programming will face tough competition from Netflix — and maybe even newer entrants HBO Max (from AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia) and Peacock (from Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal). It doesn’t help that Hollywood productions have had to shut down because of social distancing. 

Iger may still be the face of Disney and Chapek is leading the company during a crisis, but investors’ eyes will be on Campbell this year, too. This also means that Disney finally has another woman in the C-suite (its chief financial officer is Christine McCarthy) — and in this case, a role that is most assuredly on track for the next Disney CEO opening someday. Until then, she’ll have to figure out how Disney+ lures its next 50 million subscribers. Change could be good. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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