As TikTok continues to proliferate as one of the biggest entertainment platforms in the world, it’s increasingly parking right in the wheelhouse of traditional entertainment producers and streaming platforms. Netflix, for example, regularly calls TikTok a potential threat to its subscription business.
There’s a pre-walked road regarding entertainment content on social media platforms. YouTube, which turned 18 this year, has already been through these growing pains: first comes the piracy issue, whether unwitting or premeditated; then comes the marketers, craving engagement and reach; and finally comes the content monetizers, the media distribution folks. The spectrum from straight piracy to user engagement to fair use to marketing is subtle.
Today on TikTok, piracy is at an all-time high. The short-video format perfectly positions the platform to hook viewers by using the juiciest bits of longform content: it could be the fever pitch of a Kardashian ding dong, a 30 Rock Liz Lemon zinger, or the drama porn of Joffrey’s wedding from Game of Thrones. TikTok’s default “autoplay” feature means users are pulled into the scene before they can blink.
“TikTok’s algorithm perfectly feeds the Marketing Rule of Seven. So if you watch a clip from a show, you’ll be served another and another, it definitely works,” Alex Craig, CEO of TriplePlay Studios, a marketing agency frequently working with brands on TikTok content campaigns, told Observer. “In addition to what the law would consider straight piracy, organic users are sharing content from shows as clips, even roughly filmed on a computer or TV screen that feels more organic and catches viewers attention.”
The #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt trend has demonstrated how the platform essentially facilitates the ear-wormification of consumer products. Could it be doing the same thing with content? It is especially powerful at drip feeding users their specific interests—enough of what they want to be satisfied, sufficiently diversified so that they don’t feel bored. Will #TikTokMadeMeWatchIt be the next big thing?
“#TikTokMadeMeWatch (and #TikTokMadeMeListen in the case of music) is already in effect,” Jo Redfern, managing director at Wind Sun Sky Entertainment, a Canadian animation studio, told Observer. “Streamers have learned that Gen Z are perfectly happy discovering and subsequently watching movies and TV shows in small increments on a mobile phone, which is reflective of their capacity for multitasking and consuming content rapidly.”
In fact, there’s evidence suggesting TikTok piracy can have a positive impact on streaming platforms from a viewership perspective. An interesting case was Maid, a 2021 Netflix limited series ranked among the top 10 most watched shows on the platform at debut. The series was ripped off in late 2022 by a TikTok user whose channel quickly racked up tens of millions of views. The show soon after surfaced in Netflix’s Top 10 in many markets. And within a week, it was the 8th most watched English show with nearly 14 million hours viewed globally. All this was proof that something had re-energised the series.
Since the resurfacing of Maid, there has been growing activities of streamers trialling longform content on TikTok for marketing purposes. Netflix did it with Top Boy, and Peacock did it with Killing It. The most recent activation was the 2004 Mean Girls uploaded in its entirety on TikTok on Oct.3, 2023 (Mean Girls Day for those who celebrate). Like Maid, Mean Girls hit Netflix Top 10 within a week. More importantly, the viral activation perfectly launched the Mean Girls TikTok page ahead of the franchise’s new film, which is currently hitting cinemas.
“A movie like Mean Girls that was made 20 years ago can get reintroduced to the cultural zeitgeist so long as it still has potential to resonate,” said Alex Craig of TriplePlay Studios, which was directly involved in the execution of the Mean Girls campaign on TikTok. “If a movie has this potential, posting enough content should allow at least one of the clips to catch with the algorithm for virality. You can also create unique viewing experiences with TikTok LIVE to create more of a shared moment for users tuning it.”
Re-engagement with “library content” like the original Mean Girls has two-pronged importance within streaming. On one hand, it provides platform engagement with content far cheaper than marquee originals, like Stranger Things or The Crown. This could be of decided interest for streamers, as content discoverability remains a major challenge. On the other hand, it provides directional data as to what IP might easily find an audience as a reboot. Of course, Mean Girls is a prime example. Another IP, which many might not have expected to go viral on a young-skewing platform like TikTok, is Antiques Roadshow. It even has its own TikTok dance.
As TikTok opens up monetization avenues through features like creator subscription and paid “exclusive content” options, IP rights owners might be less likely to turn a blind eye to third parties financially benefiting from blatant piracy. At the same time, though, this isn’t exactly straightforward if streamers are benefiting from the virality, too.
“It’s so hard right now to get people’s attention, and you need online word-of-mouth more than ever to get people to watch a show,” Craig said. “A core part of that is the ability to share clips on TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts or Reddit. Exclusivity concerns shouldn’t really be a part of that.”
“It can feel like legacy media is experiencing the Stockholm Syndrome where TikTok is concerned,” said Jo Redfern of Wind Sun Sky. “When content is marketing, they’re torn between mistrusting a platform at its piracy peak and feeling compelled to collaborate with their tormentor given the platform’s ability to bring eyeballs to their content.”
YouTube faced the same conundrum in its early days and it resulted in the birth of Content ID, a recognition system that works to constrict content infringement at upload. TikTok talked of a “Media Match” system back in 2020 but nothing has come to fruition yet. As the platform matures and competes with streamers and studios that are actually investing in the production of content, it’s sure to come under pressure to keep its house clean.