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A diverse group of blue chip companies will gather this week in the New York offices of Coopers & Lybrand to try to figure out what consumers really want from interactive media-and what suppliers can realistically deliver.

Present at the meeting will be representatives from the U.S. Postal Service, Prudential Securities, U S West, Fidelity Investments, Merrill Lynch & Co., BellSouth Corp., a major-market daily newspaper, a European telecommunications giant and several traditional media companies.

Each is ponying up $75,000 to sponsor the Electronic Access Project, a new-media research study that may be the most ambitious and wide-ranging effort of its kind to date.

Coopers & Lybrand is conducting the six-month study in partnership with Response Analysis, Princeton, N.J.; Competitive Advantage Consulting, Franklin Lakes, N.J.; and Bethesda, Md.-based consultancy Arlen Communications.

The project will take a long-term look at consumers' media needs and habits as well as the communications industry's ability to match the supply with the demand. The focus will be on interactive entertainment, education, information and shopping applications.

"Too often, studies have asked, `Do you want such and such a service?' without asking whether anyone can provide that service or can make money providing that service," said Bill Battino, a partner in Coopers & Lybrand Consulting, who added that the Electronic Access study will address "the tension between the two sets of needs, between the consumer and the supplier."

Coopers & Lybrand and its partners are aiming to raise more than $1 million from 15 to 20 sponsors, but will proceed with the study even if they don't reach that goal. Response Analysis President James Fouss said the partners are close to signing deals with, among others, one of the Big 3 TV networks, a leading cable TV company and an imaging company. Other potential sponsors will attend this week's meeting, including a major movie studio and an ad agency.

The study is shrouded in something of a sense of secrecy. The findings will initially only be released to sponsors and will then be "warehoused for at least three years" before being made available publicly, said Coopers & Lybrand's Mr. Battino. Sponsors will play a role in shaping the study and will be able to include proprietary questions.

Several sponsors declined to discuss their participation and at least two are going in as "blind sponsors" and won't even reveal their identities to other backers.

Coopers & Lybrand and Response Analysis have been down this road before. In 1986, they conducted a study on TV shopping that focused on the U.K. and Europe. They teamed again in 1989 for a study of electronic retailing in the U.S.

For Electronic Access, the partners plan 1,400 in-home consumer interviews, an approach they said gives the project an advantage over mail- or phone-based studies.

Russell Ferstandig, a psychiatrist who is president of Competitive Advantage Consulting and a specialist in human behavior, said the face-to-face meetings will allow interviewers to explain interactive media in detail and to show consumers a video on new-media developments. The video is being produced by Arlen Communications.

"Because this is such a new frontier and there's been so much hype, consumers don't really have a clue what they're talking about," Dr. Ferstandig said. "We need to understand what their true needs are, what they want and what they're willing to do to get it."

Response Analysis' Mr. Fouss said another goal is to determine how consumers will shift both their personal time and their discretionary budgets to make way for interactive media services.

On the supply side, the plan is to conduct in-person and phone interviews with 75 to 100 "industry leaders" in technology and communications as identified by the researchers and sponsors.

The project will study interactive advertising as well as programming.

"You almost have to re-invent advertising for the superhighway," Mr. Fouss said. "It isn't a medium that's like anything we're working with today, so it requires a whole different look at what you're doing and how you get the consumer involved."

The study's ultimate goal is to present a vision for new media in the years 1996, 2000 and 2004, predicting which technologies and applications will take off and which will fizzle.

"We're pretty hopeful we'll get one of the more accurate pictures in terms of where things are and where they're going," Dr. Ferstandig said.

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