THE VALUE OF COMPETITION;BETTMANN'S PIX

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Nielsen Marketing research and Information Resources Inc. have for years fought to outdo one another in providing scanner-based sales data and analysis to marketers. The competition has been keen, to marketers' advantage, and the government has helped keep it so by barring a merger a few years back when IRI was facing problems.

Now it's Nielsen Marketing Research that's in the spotlight. Soon to be spun off from Dun & Bradstreet to compete on its own, its razor-thin profit margin of 1% is causing Wall Street to cluck anxiously about its finances. "A company cannot earn as little as that for a very long time and be viable," said one analyst, adding that there is a "presumption" the data sold by Nielsen and IRI are "vastly more valuable" to marketers than current profits would indicate.

That's Wall Street suggesting marketers might prepare for price hikes. And marketing execs who value having Nielsen and IRI fight for their business might start preparing arguments for senior management about why two viable competitors are better than one monopoly company-even if costs a little more in the short run. They have only to look at the TV audience research business, where once there was competition.....and now there is not.

It seems Bill Gates took us seriously. A year ago, we named him our Marketer of the Year, noting his grand plans to make Windows 95 a worldwide household word(s). But now the nerd has turned, buying up the world's most complete advertising swipe file-the Bettmann Archive, repository of more famous photographs than Sardi's wall.

The extensive files, housed in New York, were first compiled by Otto Bettmann, now 92 and living in Florida. Referring to the purchase by the 40-year-old software magnate, Mr. Bettmann told The Wall Street Journal, "He now owns the history of everything."

The deal was made by Corbis Corp., the Microsoft chairman's own private company. The seller was the Kraus Organization, which bought the collection from Mr. Bettmann in 1981.

Mr. Gates' grand plan is to digitize the collection for distribution via computers and CD-ROMs. How many of the nearly 17 million photos and images in the collection will make it to the computer is unknown, but certainly the ones that keep popping up in retrospectives and advertising will be available online.

Digitizing old pictures before age destroys them makes sense. But it also presents an opportunity for mischief, and imposes an obligation of good stewardship on Mr. Gates.

In the introduction to the 1993 edition of "Bettmann Portable Archive," a compilation of several thousand images, Director David Greenstein wrote: "In court rooms, laboratories and newspapers, the existence of a photograph has been accepted as the virtual record that an event took place. In the era of digital alteration of photographs, people may come to question that certainty. For this reason, Bettmann restricts its electronic manipulation of images to the same degree that it restricts its darkroom, where we allow burning, dodging, cropping and removing dust spots, but nothing more."

As owner of the world's most extensive visual treasure, Mr. Gates should make sure the Bettmann Archives does not become merely a collection of pixels to be manipulated at will. A picture should remain worth a thousand words.

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