Would Banning TikTok Be a Boon or Bummer for Hollywood?

China hawks in the House have propped TikTok on a political football tee, passing legislation that threatens to kick it off the phones of millions of Americans unless TikTok’s Chinese parent, ByteDance, sells its ownership in the app.

Right now, there appears to be much less urgency in the Senate to move forward on a measure aimed at forcing TikTok to cut its China ties, while President Biden has said he would sign such a bill (even as his re-election campaign just launched an account on TikTok). Meanwhile, to China, the saber-rattling looks like a trade dispute — wherein the U.S., on the pretext of “national security” concerns, is looking to thwart a successful overseas internet app that has been grabbing share of viewing time and ad dollars from American tech companies.

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If (and it’s a big if) the bill becomes federal law and manages to withstand legal challenges, analysts see a very real possibility that TikTok would effectively be banned in the U.S., as China would block a forced sale of TikTok by ByteDance. That raises the question: Would a TikTok ban be a net positive — or negative — for Hollywood?

There are two sides to this coin. TikTok’s elimination in the States could potentially drive more usage to streaming or traditional TV. On the other hand, the popular app, which claims to have 170 million U.S. users, has become a very valuable promotional tool for studios and networks.

TikTok boasts a significant amount of usage relative to other apps. In the fourth quarter of 2023, U.S. mobile users spent an average of 97 minutes daily on TikTok, per research firm Apptopia, which was more than YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

There’s some evidence a TikTok ban might shift some of that engagement over to streaming services. In October 2021, Netflix said that during a six-hour global outage of Meta’s Facebook, Instagram and other apps, the streamer saw a 14% increase in engagement.

But some observers don’t think streaming or TV platforms would see a sustained lift if TikTok went away. Joe Gagliese, CEO of influencer-marketing firm Viral Nation, says that in the event of a U.S. ban, TikTok’s creators and users would largely migrate to other short-form content apps. “If TikTok does get banned, I don’t foresee a natural redirection of traffic from the actual audience and demo of TikTok, which is largely comprised of young people with short attention spans, to traditional TV or streaming platforms,” he says. “For the most part, they just won’t do it.”

Indeed, “Given the enormous usage and engagement of TikTok in the U.S., banning TikTok would be a windfall for Meta, Google and Snapchat,” LightShed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield opined in a March 14 blog post. Snap’s stock would likely be the biggest winner in market cap appreciation on a percentage basis and Meta the biggest winner in terms of “absolute dollar market cap appreciation,” he wrote. “If the Senate moves forward with a vote [on a bill to ban TikTok unless ByteDance divests its stake], we believe it will be meaningfully positive in the short-term for Meta and Snap shares, even if the Supreme Court ultimately rules in favor of free speech.”

For Hollywood players, any potential upside from a TikTok ban would be mitigated by the loss of the app’s power to amplify awareness of (and excitement for) new movies and shows among TikTok’s youthful-skewing user base.

Execs at Warner Bros., for example, have credited viral content on TikTok as being an important part of driving the success of blockbuster “Barbie,” the No. 1 grossing movie at the box office in 2023 ($1.36 billion globally). “Barbie”-related content on TikTok generated hundreds of millions of views leading up to and during its theatrical run. “We did promotional work with [TikTok], but a tremendous amount is organic,” Warner Bros. president of global marketing Josh Goldstine told Variety last summer. “In a really exciting way, this whole ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon created a series of conversations and engagements.”

Neon has “shifted a lot of our investment and our advertising dollars” to TikTok, Christian Parkes, the studio’s chief marketing officer, said at the 2023 Variety Entertainment Marketing Summit. “We’ve been able to manufacture followings far quicker there than on other platforms. TikTok is ground zero right now.”

Of course, Hollywood marketers would follow the eyeballs of ex-TikTok users to whichever other platforms picked up the slack. But losing TikTok would be a net negative for the industry, in the opinion of Wedbush Securities tech analyst Daniel Ives.

The “engagement and awareness for movies and celebrities is unmatched on TikTok,” Ives says. Overall, a ban on TikTok “would be removing the hearts and lungs of social engagement across Hollywood and would be a gut punch in our view.”

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