LOS ANGELES — The Walt Disney Company’s top streaming executive, Kevin Mayer, resigned on Monday to become the chief executive of TikTok, the app for making and sharing short videos that has exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Mayer, 58, will also serve as chief operating officer of ByteDance, the Chinese conglomerate that owns TikTok. “I was happy with my job at Disney,” Mr. Mayer said by phone. “The magnitude of this opportunity was just something I couldn’t pass up.” He cited gaming and music as two expansion possibilities. (He sounded considerably less eager to post TikToks of himself.)
TikTok’s app has been downloaded about 1.9 billion times worldwide, including 172 million downloads in the United States, according to Sensor Tower, an app data firm. And its surging popularity has increased during the pandemic. In the first quarter of this year, it was downloaded 307 million times, more than any other app in the world, according to Sensor Tower data.
That popularity has made TikTok by far the biggest digital success for a Chinese-owned company in the Western world. As a result, it has faced deep distrust across the U.S. government. Several government agencies, including nearly all branches of the military, have barred employees from downloading or using the app. In March, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, proposed legislation to bar any federal employee from using the app.
“.@tiktok_us previously told me they couldn’t attend hearings and testify because executives were located in #China,” Mr. Hawley wrote on Twitter after Mr. Mayer’s hiring was announced. “But this new executive lives in the USA. I look forward to hearing from him. Under oath.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have questioned the Chinese government’s influence over the app. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, and Senator Tom Cotton, Republican from Arkansas, co-wrote a letter to the director of national intelligence in October, requesting a review of the national-security implications of TikTok’s expanding influence.
TikTok has meanwhile hired a number of American executives and employees to run its business and review content on its app. Vanessa Pappas, a former YouTube executive who joined TikTok as one of its American chiefs last year, said in a November blog post that the company’s United States-based team would call the shots on TikTok’s U.S. business, including by setting specific rules for American users.
Now Mr. Mayer will provide a clear link between TikTok and ByteDance’s leadership in Beijing, with his dual roles at the two companies.
Mr. Mayer’s departure from Disney is not entirely a surprise. Disney’s board of directors passed over him this year when it was looking for a successor for Robert A. Iger, who abruptly stepped down in February. (Mr. Iger remains executive chairman, with a focus on the creative process.) Many people in Hollywood and on Wall Street had viewed Mr. Mayer as the logical internal candidate because the future of Disney rests on its ability to transform itself into a streaming titan. The top job, however, went to Bob Chapek, the lower-profile chairman of Disney’s theme parks and consumer products businesses.
“Kevin has had an extraordinary impact on our company over the years,” Mr. Chapek said in a statement. “Having worked alongside Kevin for many years on the senior management team, I am enormously grateful to him for his support and friendship.”
Despite being passed over, Mr. Mayer had indicated that he was in no hurry to leave. There is no business more important to Disney than streaming, and Mr. Mayer has relished working on services like Disney Plus, which rolled out in November and now has about 55 million subscribers — a runaway hit. Disney Plus will arrive in parts of Asia and Latin America this year. Hulu, which has about 30 million subscribers, and Hotstar, the leading streaming service in India, have also been part of Mr. Mayer’s portfolio.
Mr. Mayer is best known as Disney’s longtime deals maven. Before running the direct-to-consumer and international division for the past two years, he served as Disney’s chief strategy officer, helping to orchestrate the purchases of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, most of 21st Century Fox and BamTech, a technology company that specializes in streaming video.
Mr. Mayer joined Disney in 1993 before leaving in 2000 to run Playboy.com. He soon returned to Disney to work on Go.com, a web portal that eventually failed, and other Disney websites, including ESPN.com, before moving to strategic planning.
Disney named Rebecca Campbell as Mr. Mayer’s successor. She has been ascending quickly. Just last year, she was named president of the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif. Before that, Ms. Campbell had a senior leadership role at Disney’s Europe, Middle East and Africa operation; she worked on the launch plan for Disney Plus. Disney also named a new chairman for theme parks and consumer products: Josh D’Amaro, who was president of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
ByteDance, founded in 2012, has quickly become a major player in the global tech industry with a number of wildly popular apps, including Douyin, in effect the Chinese version of TikTok, and Toutiao, a news aggregator that has run afoul of Chinese regulators for its sometimes racy content. Zhang Yiming, 37, its secretive founder and chief executive, has quickly become one of the richest and most influential people in China. While scrutiny of ByteDance increases with its size, his comments have resembled those of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief, arguing that ByteDance is a tech company, not a media company.
A TikTok spokesman on Monday stressed that TikTok was not owned by a Beijing-based company. Instead, its parent company, ByteDance Ltd., is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, though he could not say how many people are based there. That entity owns TikTok and all of the businesses in China, he said.
Mr. Mayer will remain in his current home in Los Angeles, though he will travel frequently to Bytedance’s headquarters in Beijing, as well as TikTok’s major offices in New York, London, Japan and India, the spokesman said.
Brooks Barnes reported from Los Angeles, and Jack Nicas from Oakland, Calif.