It could be argued that any tribute to Fred Astaire, however extravagantly and conscientiously mounted, would be inadequate to its subject. In the movie version of "The Band Wagon," Astaire and costars sang of "the art that appeals to the heart," and flowery though the phrase is, it does suggest that Astaire's achievements could never be reduced to the rhetoric of hype.

Almost as if to prove that thesis, tonight's "American Film Institute Salute to Fred Astaire," at 9 on Channel 9 (delayed from the original CBS air date, last Saturday), quickly takes on the same foggy, faintly funeral air that has polluted previous AFI salutes. The two hours do not exactly fly by on wings of eiderdown.

Producer George Stevens Jr.'s feeblest brainstorm was appointing David Niven to host the affair; if anybody represents a convincing spirit of perpetual youthfulness, and timelessness, it's Astaire, and Niven's seedy, creaky old rake act is insultingly out of place. Niven refers to the gust of honor as Mr. "Azz-tair" and wears a tuxedo that makes him look like the concierge at the Gdansk Ramada Inn.

Of all the spoken tributes to Astaire, none is more ingenuous or less sappy than that charmingly delivered by Mikhail Baryshnikov; speaking on behalf of dancers everywhere, Baryshnikov says of Astaire, "We hate him," because he's too perfect, and impossible to top. Baryshnikov, or some other talented soul under 60, would have been a much better choice as master of ceremonies.

And there are ceremonies. Astaire's praises are sung up one wall and down another. To ascribe to him and his art mystical, and metaphysical powers is to demean the work and the imagination he put into it. Or so it seems, until a bunch of Astaire film clips comes along. There really never has been a euphoria to equal this in the history of the movies. Maybe it was a gift from the gods at that.

The choice of clips is not always ideal, but a festive mood is adroitly established by having a nearly complete number -- "Pick Yourself Up" from "Swing Time" -- near the top of the program. Most other numbers are seen in fleeting but tantalizing excerpts, until the "Puttin' on the Ritz" multi-Fred dance from "Blue Skies" that precedes the arduously postponed arrival on the podium of Mr. Astaire himself.

Of course, there are dozens of numbers that didn't make it into the show, an understandable logistical dilemma except for the fact that the tributers are allowed to rattle on (the laborious script was cowritten by Stevens and Joseph McBride). Bad enough to have to endure Niven; to make matters worse, he is introduced by the towering inferno, Charlton Heston.

A few of the celebrities are royally welcome sights. James Cagney stands up in the audience and says a few words not particularly well-chosen, but it doesn't matter. And the standout at the lectern is illustrious tapster Eleanor Powell. Her tribute to Fred is one of those well-rehearsed, star-turny models-of-professionalism that, compared with such presentations as Robert De Niro's mumble-fumble acceptance speech at the Oscars, makes so graphic the difference between Then and Now.

We never heard Astaire groaning about his needs or his desire to express himself. The point always seemed to be in delighting an audience beyond its wildest dreams. How he could succeed so frequently in that without ever seeing to stop or grovel is a wonder that eludes the AFI tribute and was more effectively an annotated in David Heeley's splendid two-part Astaire tribute, "Puttin' On His Top Hat" and "Change Partners and Dance," that PBS first aired in March of 1980.

Director Marty Pasetta is less stingy with reaction shots from the crowd at the AFI Tribute than he was with his peculiar direction of this year's Oscar show (also known as "14 Perspectives on Rod Steiger"); Astaire's young bride, Robyn Smith, can be seen but not heard sitting next to him on the dais. The print quality of most of the clips is sparkingly good. Astute Betamaxers of the world will record the clips, Baryshnikov, maybe Powell, Astaire himself, and save themselves an hour's worth of tape for some better purpose.