WHEN A TV SET still had so few channels you could count them on your fingers, Americans constantly complained, "There's nothing on!"
Now we've entered that long-awaited multi-channel nirvana. But except for those who can't get enough of sub-equatorial soccer and Capitol Hill bombast, who believes that the vast wasteland has given way to the promised land? Most nights there's still nothing on.
The phenomenon of hunger amid cultural plenty is hardly unique to TV. The movie palace that once housed a single film is now a multiplex, but if you're not part of the teen-age common denominator, isn't it harder than ever to find something to see, no matter how many screens?
A new book? The superstore dwarfs the old independent bookseller, but for all the extra titles, the variety in the mix seems less.
One answer can be found in the deals that have steadily consolidated American show business in recent years -- crowned this week by Disney's purchase of ABC. Whatever joy this merger of Goliaths brings to shareholders -- and some correspondents covering the story for ABC had unmistakable stock-option dollar signs in their eyes -- the bottom line for consumers is a further constriction of our popular culture.
The fewer corporate giants who control the content of what we see, hear and read, the fewer the choices -- no matter how large the increase in outlets for their cultural products.
Instead of being able to choose between, say, "Pocahontas" and "Crumb," a consumer will be able to choose only among "Pocahontas: The Movie," "Pocahontas: The Musical," "Pocahontas: The Novelization," "Pocahontas: The Internet Site," "Pocahontas: The TV Show" and "Pocahontas: The Theme-Park Ride" -- especially if that consumer doesn't live in the big cities where a specialty item like "Crumb" will have to be tracked down.
I exaggerate, of course, and the Disney-ABC merger is not all bad news, even though it sadly reduces ABC News' corporate status to that of Time at Time Warner. Just the announcement of the deal was more entertaining than most current Hollywood productions because it came as a genuine surprise, with no advance hype. (The secret was kept, it's been reported, because investment bankers, the agent Michael Ovitz and cellular phones were kept out of the loop.)
Another fun aspect of the Disney deal was its upstaging of Laurence Tisch's announcement of CBS's sale to Westinghouse the very next day. Tisch's inept timing of CBS's betrothal to a semi-decrepit rust-belt suitor was the perfect parting metaphor for his destruction of William Paley's Tiffany network.
A more serious virtue of the Disney deal and the homogenized mass culture it perpetuates is as a societal tie that binds. As America becomes increasingly fractionalized politically, linguistically and economically, mass culture may be the last common tongue we have.
If the country will never rally around Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, then maybe an all-powerful Disney-ABC can provide the icons to unify us -- much as Lucy and Desi served that purpose back in the era when a far smaller electronic arena could be dominated by Paley's relatively modest CBS.
But corporate culture, however pleasing, is still corporate. Designed to sell to as many customers as possible, it is no more personal than most assembly-line creations. To the extent a "Lion King" or "I Love Lucy" reveals a human touch, they're the exceptions, while "Congo" and last month's canceled sitcom are more than ever the rule.
In a corporate culture, original and idiosyncratic artistic voices, which by definition reach smaller markets, have trouble making themselves heard. As our entertainment behemoths become larger and fewer -- a process to be accelerated even faster by Congress' telecommunications bill -- those essential alternative voices will have to fight to keep from being drowned out entirely.
But they won't necessarily disappear. When pop culture becomes too oppressively white-bread, history tells us, its prized international teen-age market protests by putting its dollars elsewhere; all it took was a stoned Jack Nicholson in the bargain-basement "Easy Rider" to bring the elephantine Hollywood studios of the 1960s to their knees. If there's an invigorating flip side to this week's victory for corporate culture, it's that a new counterculture is sure to rise up in revolt.
Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.