Dan Rather decided to skip the Kennedy Center Honors this year and instead attended an industry do in Dallas. Did Dan know something we didn't? In fact, the Seventh Annual Kennedy Center Honors was something of a letdown, an essentially fizzless evening of music, praise and standing ovations. Surprisingly or not, it works better as a television show. CBS will show it, annual token nod to culture that it is, tonight at 9 on Channel 9.

TV viewers will get a brisker, tighter extravaganza than did the audience in the Opera House, where the two-hour gala was taped Dec. 2. The proceedings came to awkward halts several times while stagehands in black tie lugged scenery and props around a fully lit stage. A glittery crowd that included President and Mrs. Reagan twiddled glittery thumbs. You'd think with the president there'd be some attempt at stage decorum, but the live performance really is a social, not a cultural, event. It's a happening. The show that TV viewers see is related to the event, but it isn't the event itself.

The five people honored for contributions to the performing arts in America this year -- Lena Horne, Isaac Stern, Gian Carlo Menotti, Arthur Miller and Danny Kaye -- constitute a lustrous crew, but somehow the show lacked luster. It didn't seem as powerful as in years past, and there wasn't one big huge emotional wow along the lines of Carol Burnett and the Naval Academy Choir's serenade to James Stewart last year. There were no icy fingers up and down one's spine.

Indeed, the audience outshone the stars on stage. Executive producer George Stevens Jr. does have the knack for getting the stars of Washington to turn out for affairs. He produced a bunch more earlier in the month for NBC's pleasant "Christmas in Washington" special. And his TV programs have an unmistakable classy shimmer. But many of the performers this year seem so-so, and there isn't a strong enough popular draw among the honorees.

Dionne Warwick and Debbie Allen (of "Fame") are only adequate in their tributes to Horne; Carl Reiner and Vin Scully blab on and on in praise of Kaye (whom Reiner calls, disputably, "the greatest comic of our time"); and seedy Efrem Zimbalist Jr., looking like Wayne Newton's tailor, leads the homage to Menotti. A visit from Dustin Hoffman and a scene from his new production of "Death of a Salesman" would have been the ideal honor for Miller (CBS will show the whole play later this season), but there's no sign of Dustin. Instead, a trio of tattered actors plods through one of those archly posed Readings From the Stage. Attention need not be paid.

A step up are Itzhak Perlman, who plays and speaks in tribute to Stern, and Karl Malden, who has a few affecting and flawlessly delivered remarks about Miller. The Miller tribute also includes a visit from the impressively vigorous Ying Rouchang, a Chinese actor who appeared in the People's Republic's version of "Salesman" last year.

Menotti wrote "Amahl and the Night Visitors," the first opera ever commissioned for television. Yes, in days of yore, extreme yore, a network would actually do something as noble as commission an opera. "Amahl" was an annual Christmas event on NBC beginning in 1951; tackily, nobody mentions NBC on this CBS show. A scene from the opera is performed, but it dies out of context.

A very brief acrobatic appearance by Mary Lou Retton, sweetheart of the '84 Olympics, is used as a platform for Kennedy Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens to urge that the kind of money splurged on athletics also be lavished on the arts. Roger Stevens could be the greatest deadpan standup comedian in history.

Allen's dance to a couple of Lena Horne records is flat and banal (last year Baryshnikov danced for Frank Sinatra, another matter altogether), but director Don Mischer improves it for television by cutting to reaction shots of the infectiously elated Horne in the honorees' box. She's so delighted that you get delighted, too, even though what we're all seeing isn't delightful. During Art Buchwald's monologue, there's a nice shot of Teddy Kennedy laughing heartily. Careful Viewer will also spot Roger Mudd, who is annually about the only NBC person invited to this affair. He once worked for CBS News.

Perlman certainly picked a lackluster piece to salute Stern, a humdrum fantasia on themes from "Carmen," but again, TV viewers will get to see him in intense close-ups obviously denied those in the hall, and these help make the performance at least, if not the piece, captivating.

Although this year's "Kennedy Center Honors" isn't up to the standard for the series, at least it's two hours of television that no one could call mindless. Its noises are joyful ones. The problem for George Stevens and the Kennedy Center is going to be in coming up with suitable honorees in future years. Sid Caesar was in the audience for this year's show. He seems a likely contender, but no one known primarily for work in television has ever won.

That disqualifies people like Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. But Stevens needs at least one Great Big Popular Star each year. Katharine Hepburn reportedly turns it down annually because she's too much of a grouch to come to Washington. Bette Davis is overdue for it, but not in good health. Stevens may have to turn to TV yet. And in 25 years, who will be standing up there? Barry Manilow perhaps? Tina Turner? Future generations are going to have a tough time keeping up the Kennedy Center Honors tradition.

The program ends this year with an intended throat-lumper that doesn't quite produce: Roberta Peters leading an international children's choir as a toast to goodwill ambassador Kaye. Let the record show that the first person to rise in applause after the singing of "Let There Be Peace on Earth (And Let It Begin With Me)," or at least the first to be seen rising in the TV version, is . . . Ronald Reagan.