Kevin Mayer talks about his disappointing departures at Disney and TikTok, and the long decline of pay TV

Chairman of Direct-to-Consumer & International division of The Walt Disney Company Kevin Mayer took part today in the Disney+ Showcase at Disney’s D23 EXPO 2019 in Anaheim, Calif., August 23, 2019.
Jesse Grant

The last year in Kevin Mayer’s professional life wasn’t just a whirlwind, it was a global overview of the biggest stories in media and entertainment.

Mayer started 2020 running Disney+, Disney‘s flagship and wildly successful streaming service. But when Mayer wasn’t named Disney’s chief executive officer after Bob Iger stepped down, he left for a new role specifically developed for him: CEO of TikTok and chief operating officer of its Chinese parent company ByteDance.

Surprisingly, he was only there for three months. The Trump administration’s attempt to force a TikTok U.S. sale led to his abrupt exit.

By November, Mayer had joined billionaire Len Blavatnik’s investment firm Access Industries as an advisor. Just this month, he became chairman of one of Blavatnik’s investments, the sports streaming service DAZN.

Mayer has also joined the SPAC game, advising on Forest Road’s acquisition of fitness subscription service Beachbody and now hunting for a new target with former colleague and ex-Disney CFO Tom Staggs.

In an interview with CNBC this week, Mayer was candid about his exits at Disney and TikTok, describing what was going through his mind as he left both jobs. He revealed the “secret sauce” to both TikTok’s and DAZN’s future success.

Here’s the full Q&A:

(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Alex Sherman, CNBC: Let’s just quickly remind people what has happened in your life from a professional standpoint over the past year, and maybe then you can provide some context as to how this all happened.

Kevin Mayer, DAZN Chairman: Sure.

About a year ago, Disney announces Bob Chapek will be the new CEO, and Bob Iger is going to step down. A couple months later, you announce you’re leaving Disney to become the new CEO of TikTok and COO of ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company. This is a position that didn’t previously exist. Was it specifically made for you in mind?

I believe so. As I recall, the recruiters were recruiting for the CEO role. And the more I got into getting to know the team at ByteDance, and given the experiences I’ve had, the role that I played at Disney, it became clear that it would be an interesting concept for me to have a dual role, because I think that everyone felt I could be quite helpful at the corporate level as well. So I believe it was a job that evolved during the discussions.

So obviously, that job was an amazing opportunity. We’ll get into what happened there in a second. But first, I want to ask you about this, because I know people are curious and I’m curious. Did you think you were going to be the next Disney CEO?

I was hoping I would be. I’m not sure hope and expectations are the same. It’s a nice job, CEO of Disney.

Look, if you’d asked me that question five years ago, I would have said, no, I didn’t. I didn’t think I was headed towards the CEO of Disney. But given the confluence of events of Tom Staggs leaving, then there being a bit of a vacuum during the 21st Century Fox deal, which caused Bob Iger to stay a little longer… And the fact that I was able to launch Disney+ so effectively. I also launched ESPN+, and I was running Hulu, and I led the entire reconfiguration of the company into direct to consumer. Bob Iger and the board felt that I should run all of that.

That was, I thought, intended to be a bit of a test run to see if I could be CEO. I’m not sure what I could have done there to prove myself more than I did. I think that Bob left earlier than he expected to.

Why? Why did he leave earlier than he expected to?

That’s a question for Bob Iger, not for me.

That whole announcement seemed really rushed. Suddenly, he’s announcing ‘I’m going to step down effective immediately.’ He’d previously said he was expecting to step down this year, in 2021. I don’t know if it caught you off guard, but it sounds like it did.

I didn’t know that was coming at all. Look, my interpretation of it is that Bob Iger wanted to focus more on the creative side of things. He has a lot of affinity for that. And it just sort of escalated quickly. And he and the board of directors needed to make a call about who would be the next CEO.

What I’ve heard is I needed a little bit more seasoning. I’d only been in that role for a couple of years, in an operating role. Before that I was chief strategy officer and a staff role, even though I had a lot of people working for me around the world and all that stuff. And I think that the timing of his ascension to being executive chairman, coupled with the fact that Bob Chapek had a lot of experience….Bob Chapek is a good guy, by the way. He’d worked throughout all of the different areas of Disney. He was in the studio, he was running consumer products, had been running the theme parks. It’s not a bad choice. So I can’t….someone wins and someone loses in that situation. And given the timing of it and in the immediacy of it, I think that people felt that he was the safer pair of hands at the moment.

Did I want to be CEO? Of course I did. Who wouldn’t want to be CEO of the Walt Disney Company? It’s a great job.

So that was the answer you were given? Simply that you needed a little more seasoning? Because people can go back and read it. I was public about it. I wrote at the time you should have gotten the CEO job because it only made sense to put the person who led the development of Disney+ in charge of the company. That was going to be the narrative to Wall Street, and it has been. And, that’s no knock on Bob Chapek.

Yeah, look, I don’t feel like I should be in the place of explaining this. You really should ask Bob Iger or others who made the a decision, not me. Did I want to be CEO? Of course I did. Who wouldn’t want to be CEO of the Walt Disney Company? It’s a great job.

All right. Let’s move to TikTok. You get the job and you’re leading what’s probably the biggest social media growth story since Facebook. I think it’s fair to say whenever the TikTok or ByteDance IPO is, it’s going to be valued at an absurd amount of money. You take that job in May. By August, you’re out of the job because the Trump administration seemed on the verge of forcing the sale of TikTok at the time, either to Microsoft or Oracle.

So the news gets out this is happening, and you have no interest in running a watered down division of TikTok as a division of either of those companies. And your job as CEO of TikTok, if the deal happens, would no longer include the U.S., so that job is ruined too. So, you announce you’re stepping down.

But then the sale never happens because the Chinese government gets involved at the last minute and nixes what was proposed. And then in the subsequent months, the Trump administration doesn’t really push hard for it. The election comes, he loses….yada, yada, yada. To date, TikTok hasn’t been sold. It continues to remain a part of ByteDance.

So, that long-winded preface sets up my question. Do you feel screwed over by the Trump administration?

Uh, yeah. Yes. That’s the short answer to it.

There might have been reasons. [It’s] hard to determine exactly all the dynamics and the machinations of what they were thinking and why they did what they did. The Trump administration, of course, was known to do things on the fly and without a lot of thinking behind it. But it did look as if that was a serious ruling by the [Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS)] guys, that it had to be divested and it was going to be divested. The fact is, and I think you may have written about this, but it’s true, that the job that I signed up for was going to be gone. And in the next few days was going to be gone. It was, like, extremely imminent.

And so the guys at ByteDance and the board and I had discussions about it. And I didn’t want to go run a division of Microsoft or Oracle. And if there was going to be a divestiture, like you said, there would be no U.S. operations. It was just too awkward and bizarre. And then the whole thing leaked to The Financial Times before the announcement. I was going to make the announcement of my departure concurrently, at the same time as the announcement of the sale.

TikTok is an incredible product, and ByteDance is an incredible company….the magic sauce there is in their artificial intelligence technology, coupled with machine learning, coupled with the ingestion of tens of millions of videos every day and growing.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I announced my departure a couple of days in advance of the sale, and all would become clear in a few days. And then, as you say, the Chinese stepped in and then we are where we are. So it was it was an odd set of circumstances.

So, given all of that, what are your thoughts of how the Trump administration handled all of it? From reporting on it, it seemed very “bull in a china shop.”

I agree. It was very bull in a china shop. It was typical Trump administration stuff. And he was quite serious about it at the time. I don’t know what’s going on with the Trump administration’s thinking at any given moment, but it seemed pretty serious and seemed like they were intent upon doing it. And that’s what happened. So, yeah, it wasn’t great.

Do you have any sense of the motivation behind it? I can tell you, there were some people at TikTok who told me at the time they thought it was motivated by what happened with the Tulsa rally, with teenagers on TikTok messing that up for Trump. Do you feel like that was probably part of this?

We were told it wasn’t. But what do I know? I really have no idea.

I think that answer is telling. “We were told it wasn’t.” That means you at least asked the question!

You know, I mean…

Ok, let’s talk about TikTok more broadly. What is TikTok’s biggest challenge to stay relevant in the years to come?

I think TikTok is an incredible product, and ByteDance is an incredible company. So I think that they will have every opportunity to stay relevant. I don’t anticipate it becoming irrelevant, but I do think the magic sauce there is in their artificial intelligence technology, coupled with machine learning, coupled with the ingestion of tens of millions of videos every day and growing — probably beyond that today. The ability to parse them out and understand… they don’t really understand what’s in each video, per se, but they do understand exactly how videos filter through their very sophisticated, nuanced A.I. engine. So, their ability to stay on top of that and to keep putting relevant videos in front of the relevant people that want to see them in real time… it’s hard to imagine that becoming irrelevant, almost ever, because that’s a really powerful product proposition.

It also depends on people creating content for it. That virtuous cycle. It’s a network effect, if you will. And so they have to stay exciting to people that are creating the content, to have this huge amount of content created by a subset of the audience, and the audience loving what they’re seeing. That’s the virtuous cycle that has to stay intact.

So, I guess there could be a conceivable outcome in the future when maybe it’s not as relevant to the creators. Maybe the creators find another way to make money, or they don’t see a path to the influence that they want to have on TikTok. It’s a possibility. I think they have to make sure that they are very relevant to the creators, because the creators are the engine behind them getting the content that then the A.I. can act upon. So I do think that there’s a greater relevance issue that they have to be focused on.

In the future, there will be another TikTok that comes along that does something that we can’t contemplate that will be really awesome in the social, entertainment and social media space. But it doesn’t mean that TikTok dies off so something else can win. Facebook and Instagram are still around, and so is Tiktok, and so is YouTube. They can all coexist. I see a future where there’ll be another new thing coming around the corner in a few years, but Tik-Tok will stay relevant, I think.

You may be uniquely qualified to answer this question: Is TikTok set up from a management standpoint to be a publicly traded company soon?

I don’t know how they’re going to go public or when they’re going to go public. I’m not sure if they’re going to take ByteDance public, which owns TikTok, or TikTok separately. I just don’t know. So it really depends on how they go public. ByteDance is a juggernaut. They have management at the top of ByteDance that are very capable. Yiming Zhang is a founder who is an extraordinarily capable guy with a great team. I think they can be a public company. Look, I would have loved to have done that with them, but it didn’t work out that way. If they need some management capability, they will have no trouble attracting it.

So, is the vision to list ByteDance, a Chinese company, on a U.S. exchange?

Theoretically. It could list simultaneously on a couple exchanges. It could be U.S. only, or Shanghai, or Hong Kong only. There are many Chinese companies listed in the U.S.

So let’s fast forward again. In November, you joined the investment firm Access Industries in an advisory role. This is Len Blavatnik’s firm. One of his major entertainment investments is DAZN, the sports streaming service. And then just this month, you took over as chairman of DAZN, replacing John Skipper, the former head of ESPN. What was it about this opportunity that made you think, OK, this is something I want to do?

It’s interesting. Remember, I launched ESPN+ in the U.S., and I ran that, and that was based on getting the UFC rights, plus baseball rights, plus a ton of college sports and other sports. It was like 12,000 events or something on ESPN+.

Sports, like every other visual entertainment content type, is going to be an over-the-top service. That’s just where everything is headed. Traditional pay-TV is declining, both here and in Europe. In most markets in Europe, it never really had the foothold that it had here.

DAZN is mostly focused in Europe and Asia. They have a big business in Japan and then key markets in Europe. It has a global footprint through boxing and a few other sports. That’s what you see in the U.S. and other countries. So I think it’s a really interesting platform. It reminds me of what we did at ESPN+. And I do think it’s the future of sports.

Sports, like every other visual entertainment content type, is going to be an over-the-top service. That’s just where everything is headed.

In Europe especially, there’s a way in. Even when you’re a TV subscriber, you always have had to pay extra for the sports. There’s always an explicit purchase you had to make. So, we know the demand. We know the price points. We know all that stuff in Europe. And I think that some of the challenges that we’re facing over there create a way in for a streaming service like DAZN to work. So I’m pretty excited about the prospects.

And I’m still excited about all the other stuff that that Access is doing in the TMT space. They own a majority interest of Warner Music, which is now a public company since last June. They do a lot of film and television stuff. They have a streaming music service, mostly in Europe, called Deezer, which is big in some of the European countries. So it’s fun to work with them.

Is there any avenue that you can foresee that would allow DAZN to be a bigger factor in the United States?

It’s conceivable, in the future, theoretically, that DAZN could make inroads here. I just think that for the time being and for the medium term, we really need to focus on Europe and Asia. That’s where the fertile territory is, mostly.

And you’re talking about local sports to Europe and Asia, right? Not global or American sports broadcast to a local audience?

Yes. That’s the key to sports, to being a sports service that has momentum and really matters. To have staying power, you need to deliver the sports that matter to consumers no matter where they are. And those are the local sports. So in the U.K., the English Premier League and maybe some cricket and maybe some rugby. In Germany, it’s Bundesliga, which is their equivalent of the EPL. In Japan, it’s baseball.

So you have to get those local rights in those countries. And that’s how you can make a real service take hold.

And you feel like DAZN is well positioned to do that, even though you theoretically will be competing against larger media companies.

Yeah, I think we are positioned to do it. We have the capital to do it, and Len Blavatnik is committed to it. And it’s going to work.

It’s a flywheel that happens. Once it starts spinning, you can create momentum. You get the rights, you get the subscribers, you put yourself in the position that you should reasonably be the person that can pay more than the second highest bidder the next time around. What ESPN did in wholesale, that’s what we’re going to do in retail. ESPN did this to the pay-TV guys. ESPN bought rights, they charged more, they bought more rights. You can recreate that with local rights in local markets. And I think that’s what we’re going to do.

OK, we’re not yet done with the tour of your jobs this year. You also are running two new SPACs with your old Disney colleague Tom Skaggs, and, by the way, Shaquille O’Neal is an investor. First of all, how do you know Shaq?

I didn’t personally know Shaq before we did this. So, what happened was, I joined a SPAC that was formed by a company called Forest Road. Forest Road is a relatively new company. Tom Staggs is one of the initial investors. I was introduced to the founder, a guy named Zack Tarica, a great guy. His brother works there, too, Jeremy. The business they’re in is they buy and sell earned tax credits that entertainment companies earn when they when they shoot a TV show or movies. They give you tax credits, but not all entertainment companies can actually use them, so they’re fungible, and you can trade them, and they’re worth a lot.

This sounds positively John Malone-esque.

John Malone-esque. I suppose you could say that.

So, they’re in the entertainment space, but from a different perspective than I was ever in the space. Tom Staggs was one of the initial investors in Forest Road. He’s on the board. I got to know these guys. Now, I’m on the board of Forest Road, the parent company, and they launching a SPAC, and I agreed to be a strategic advisor to the first SPAC.

Shaquille O’Neal is an investor in Forest Road. So that’s how they know Shaq. And Shaq, by the way, is a pretty successful business person, even a very successful business person. He’s in Papa John’s, and is on the board of a lot of different companies. And he’s a smart guy. I interact with him a fair amount since joining the SPAC. He’s smart! He’s good. He’s a real business person, a real investor. So, obviously having Shaq is beneficial because he’s Shaq, obviously very famous and well-loved, but he’s also really a substantive business person. So, they brought him into that first SPAC I joined as an advisor. Tom Staggs was chairman of the advisory board. And it was a lot of fun.

And you already acquired a company with the first one, right?

Yes, we found Beachbody pretty quickly. It was one of the fastest — they call it ‘de-SPAC’ (editor’s note: when a SPAC finds and acquires a target) — one of the fastest in the history of SPACs. It was a really energizing experience. And it’s been pretty well received by the marketplace. SPACs are having their ups and down, but this is a pretty good one. And so, Tom and I decided we’ll be the CEO and co-chairman of the next SPAC. That’s what we’re doing right now.

 And what are you targeting with this new one?

The new one will be similar to the first one, which is the TMT space, the technology, media and telecommunications space, but we added a “C” for consumer.

In other words, it’s going to be a consumer facing company in the TMT space. Tom and I have a special love for companies that are undergoing massive change or operating in a dynamic environment where technology is changing consumer behavior and changing business models and shifting profit pools That’s something that we did at Disney. Tom was CFO of Disney for a long time. We’re very comfortable in that environment.

So we’re looking for companies that are undergoing that sort of strategic shift, usually technology driven and further driven by consumer behavior shifts, which is a great example of that.

Beachbody is a great example of that. They were a VHS company that did infomercials. Then they went to DVD. And now everything is, of course, delivered digitally through streaming. They have a subscription. They used to sell one-off programs like P90X — you may have heard of that — for like $130 about 10 years ago. Now, for a year’s subscription, you can pay $99. So it’s a really good deal, and it’s transformed itself.

And they also have social commerce where they sell things over social media networks using influencers. And that’s something I saw with TikTok that’s going to explode. And so you add those things together, and it’s a really cool company. It’s right in the middle of all these trends. So, some other companies like that. We’re not fitness experts, per se. We don’t focus on the fitness space, but a broad space where technologies meet traditional businesses.

Before we go, I want to get your read on the streaming landscape, given your success at Disney+. I think the key question I struggle with is will media companies, including Disney, be better off in this new streaming environment than they were in the traditional pay-TV environment?

There’s a lot to be said about being a retailer versus a wholesaler, and in the traditional TV environment, Disney was a wholesaler. It did really well. There were a bunch of channels, including ESPN, that were must have networks for pay-TV operators. And it was a great business, no doubt about it. It was in high growth mode for a long time.

The realistic future is that TV is going to decline, and it’s declining fairly precipitously.

And, just to jump in, the reason I’m asking this, is in that environment, you’ve got tens of millions of people paying for ESPN every month even if they’re not watching it. And that goes away as a retailer and not a wholesaler.

True. And it would be great if that continued to exist. But you have to be realistic about it. The realistic future is that TV is going to decline, and it’s declining fairly precipitously. There will be an end where it levels off at some point, but where that is, I don’t know. That’s how you have to compare, shifting into a streaming and retail mode versus that eventual outcome. You have to make your strategic choices based on reality. The reality is that it is declining and falling to a point that’s much smaller than it once was. So, against that backdrop, being in a direct to consumer business is substantially better than just riding that wholesale business down.

Given you’re an investor in this world now, are you looking at what’s happening with Discovery, Viacom and AMC Networks now? These companies are going through the roof, and their streaming services aren’t exactly Disney+. Does that make any sense to you?

You know, there are other dynamics at play. Honestly, I think there’s so much liquidity in the marketplace. Interest rates are so low. Bank accounts are way higher than they ever have been in the past because of all the stimulus, which is just another facet of there being so much liquidity. There’s the Reddit effect. There’s more retail activity than ever. The market is skewed in many different ways for many different reasons. We’ve got to acknowledge that in any discussion that we have about this.

But I think there is a place for these smaller media companies to be worth a fair amount of money. The big, global, successful streaming operations — there are going to be a few of them. There won’t be more than a handful. But you don’t have to be a big, dominant global player to be worth a fair amount of money.

Take Discovery. I think that’s a great company. And I think it’s I think Discovery+ will do very, very well. It’s already doing very well. I think David Zaslav is really smart and a really good CEO. Is it going to be Disney+? No. Is it is it expected to be Disney+? Is it priced like Disney? No.

So you have to put it all in context. Discovery+ is not going to be 200 million subscriber product around the world. I don’t think he ever would say it would be, although I don’t think he’s given a forecast, as I recall.

That’s correct, he hasn’t. But let me ask you spin off of that question. Do you think we are headed toward another round of major consolidation among the traditional media companies?

I think that there is more consolidation to come. It’s already fairly consolidated, but there’s an argument to be made that some of these players are still subscale. And if you want to really compete with the depth and breadth of content that it takes to compete on a global platform in a global sense, yeah, you need more consolidation.

You’re talking about NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS, WarnerMedia, Discovery…

Yeah, yeah. Maybe there’s some consolidation there. That would be smart, probably.

Ok, we’re at the end of your job tour. Would you change anything?

You know, there’s always a silver lining to everything. It has been a strange year for me. Would I change anything? Maybe. But I’m a firm believer that you just look forward. I’m having a great time. Things are looking great.

So what would you have done differently?

Eh, I wouldn’t do anything differently.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.