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`500 NATIONS' IS NOBLE AND AMBITIOUS BUT FLAWED

The most amazing thing about "500 Nations" is that it's on a broadcast network.

No one would be surprised if this eight-hour documentary about American Indians was on PBS. But it's on CBS - a big shock.If nothing else, "500 Nations" is a testament to the power of Kevin Costner. He's both host and one of the executive producers of the program, which almost entirely explains why this show is on one of the Big Three networks.

CBS will present the first four hours, tonight and Friday at 7 p.m. on Ch. 5. The second four hours have not been scheduled yet.

"500 Nations," which refers to the many different tribes that inhabited the Americas, is nothing if not ambitious. It attempts nothing less than following the history of widely disparate people through centuries - basically from creation until the present day.

And it's style is right out of "The Civil War" - recreations, photographs, maps and the actual words of some historical figures, spoken by actors.

But, unfortunately, the effect is not the same. Despite its length, "500 Nations" can be little more than a cursory glance at dozens of different aspects of American Indian culture, without delving deeply into any of them.

And, for all its different segments, the show still manages to plod along surprisingly slowly.

Costner himself is almost a gimmick in the production, merely providing brief introductions to various segments. Actor Gregory Harrison is the main narrator.

"500 Nations," if flawed, is still a noble effort. CBS, as well as Costner and his associates, deserve praise for the attempt.

And it's something you may want to tape and watch later.

It's just too bad that "500 Nations" isn't better than it is.

PRESIDENTIAL DECISION: The folks at the Big Three networks, quite naturally, talked a lot about news value and journalistic judgments when explaining their decisions to carry or not to carry President Clinton's prime-time news conference on Tuesday night.

But isn't it odd that the two networks that would have had to pre-empt highly successful sitcoms didn't, and the one that had to lose a low-rated movie night did?

NBC didn't pre-empt "Frasier." ABC didn't pre-empt "Home Improvement." CBS did pre-empt a 1993 TV movie. 'Nuff said.

LOTS OF SOAP: Earlier today, the CBS soap opera "As the World Turns" taped its 10,000th episode.

That's right, 10,000th episode.

The show debuted on April 2, 1956.

Gee, just think of all the evil twins, comas, affairs, back-stabbing, murder and intrigue that adds up to.

QUOTABLE: Former "Saturday Night Live" star Phil Hartman, assessing the current state of the show on "The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder":

"Irrespective of the talent that's on the show now - and I adore these guys and women - it seems to me that what really made the show peak was having utility players who could do a lot of different things. The show was at its best when it was satirizing what was in the news that week. Now, you have a lot of funny people on the show, but they're limited in what they can do comedically. There's nothing wrong with that show that a few utility players wouldn't solve."