"The Civil War" was the big winner and "Northern Exposure" the big loser at the seventh annual Television Critics Association Awards here in Universal City.

The PBS miniseries won in two of three categories in which it was nominated, while CBS' hourlong comedy/drama failed to win any of the three awards it was up for."The Civil War" was named both best special and program of the year in a vote by the national organization of television critics.

"It's really remarkable that a little film not even on a real network . . . could reach so many Americans," said Mitchell Block, accepting the awards for filmmaker Ken Burns.

"Northern Exposure" was nominated for program of the year, best comedy and best drama (proving even the critics can't make up their minds what it is).

For the second time in three years, the best comedy award went to the CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown," which was represented at the ceremonies by several cast members, producers and writers.

"By the way, we thought we were getting this for news and information," said series creator/executive producer Diane English.

"We work very, very hard to earn the respect of you and our audience. We've taken a lot of chances, and we're taking a big one this fall."

The unmarried Murphy Brown learned she was pregnant in the show's season finale this past spring.

The best drama award went to a show that ABC has dumped from its schedule - "thirtysomething."

"Unlike `Murphy Brown,' we're off the air so I'm the only one they could find," said series star Melanie Mayron.

Mayron accepted the award on behalf of series creator/producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. "They decided to talk about their experiences . . . and I think that's something we've all learned from," she said.

The award for sports went to CBS for its coverage of the NCAA Final Four. ABC News took the honors in children's programming for "War In the Gulf: Questions and Answers with Peter Jennings."

And for the third year in a row, CNN won in the news category, this time for it's coverage of the Persian Gulf war.

"Getting an award from the Television Critics Association is major league for us," said CNN newsman John Holliman. "After 11 years of struggling and reading your criticism . . . we have grown and improved."

And critics' favorite Brandon Tartikoff, the former NBC Entertainment president who's now head of Paramount, won the career achievement award.

"You were a major part of my career and my success in television," Tartikoff told the critics. But he did deflect much of the praise he'd received for sticking with high-quality, low-rated shows early in his NBC tenure.

"I think a lot of it wasn't patience, it was the fear . . . of what you'd do to us if we canceled shows like `Hill Street Blues.' "OTHER NOMINEES: Here are the other shows nominated in each category:

Program of the Year: CNN war coverage, "Northern Exposure"; Outstanding Drama: "The Civil War," "Law & Order," "Northern Exposure" and "Separate But Equal"; Outstanding Comedy: "Cheers," "Northern Exposure" and "The Simpsons"; News and Information: CNN newsman Peter Arnett, "Frontline," "Nightline" and "The Civil War."

Specials: "Billy Crystal Special" and "Best of Ed Sullivan"; Sports: ABC Super Bowl, ESPN baseball, ESPN "Sportscenter"; Children's Programming: "Dinosaurs," Nickelodeon, "Pee-wee's Playhouse," "Sesame Street" and "Tiny Toons." MY VOTES: Surprisingly enough, I voted for five of the seven winners in the TCA Awards.

The two categories in which I differed were program of the year (I voted for "Northern Exposure") and children's programming (in which I chose "Tiny Toons").HOW IMPORTANT?: The TCA is trying to gain more respect for its awards, and the turnout of stars, executives, producers and writers demonstrated added stature is being achieved.

Not to toot our own horn, but who better to hand out television awards than the critics? Unlike the Emmys, we're not nominating ourselves and we have no axes to grind or debts to pay.

And, unlike the Emmy voters, television critics watch an awful lot of TV. I dare say there is no group of people in America that has a better perspective on television programming than TCA members.DELTA'S GONE: Delta Burke has been fired from "Designing Women," but we may not have seen the last of her on CBS.

Burke has a development deal with Universal, and Jeff Sagansky, CBS Entertainment president, said he'd "love" to have her back on the network in another show.QUOTABLE: Tartikoff, telling critics that he left NBC because he didn't want to spend his entire professional life working in television - he wanted to work in film:

"So now I'm working on `The Addams Family.' "