TEDDY KENNEDY's advisers know what they are doing. The senator was interviewed by the networks as part of election-night coverage last night in this order: CBS No.1, NBC No. 2 and ABC No.3 -- precisely their order of importance and, as it developed, their order of excellence as well.

CBS News sprang out of the starting gate with superior, dynamic, beautifully organized and illustrated coverage, and the network stayed ahead throughout the evening under the leadership of gung-ho anchorman Dan Rather. This race was not too close to call. NBC News was a respectable second -- as it brought the anchor team of Roger Mudd and Tom Brokaw together on the same set for the first time -- but ABC News was a laggardly, miserable and distant third.

Indeed, as dramatic as the CBS excellence was, the ABC coverage was almost more striking in its inferiority. The three-way anchor team of David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Ted Koppel proved a disaster; while the other two networks burned up the airwaves with results, projections and analysis, ABC's tired trio was loping through a very sloppy soft-shoe.

Brinkley is the reigning dean of election-night anchors, but he seemed stranded and sourpussed on his maiden election-night voyage with ABC; he looked like a man who wanted to be anywhere but where he was. Perhaps the crucial difference from his days at NBC was the lack of somebody intelligent to talk to. Koppel has distinguished himself on "ABC News Nightline," and Reynolds has a certain venerability, but the three of them together fizzled. It may have been the most grievous humiliation Brinkley has suffered in nearly four decades of broadcast journalism.

Just after 9 p.m., CBS was rattling off returns and estimates and NBC was interviewing Kennedy, but ABC's three horsemen jabbered and pontificated with all the urgency of an afternoon tea. CBS was playing for keeps, NBC had the pedal to the metal, and ABC was gumming the bullet. It was a peculiarly half-hearted performance from the network news department that in recent years has been noted for its aggressiveness and innovation.

There are bound to be some screaming sessions at ABC this morning over the dreadful showing last night. It is also likely ABC may rethink the whole idea of continuous election-night coverage and choose in the future to rely only on sporadic reports and late-night summaries.

ABC's caution bordered on suicide. Shortly after 8 p.m., CBS gave the New Jersey Senate race to Democrat Frank Lautenberg; NBC chalked it up for Lautenberg a short time later. But at this point, ABC was still reporting that Millicent Fenwick was leading in votes counted. ABC did not award the race to Lautenberg until just after 9:30, more than an hour later. (CBS and NBC originated their coverage from New York; ABC's originated from its costly new Washington bureau.)

Rather, meanwhile, was fairly bursting with eternal vigilance and a slightly eerie joie de guerre. He ran the tightest racing ship it is probably possible to run on such an occasion. Some may have found his zest a bit unnerving, but it was certainly preferable to the lullaby over on ABC. Just before 8 o'clock, Rather advised viewers that the next hour would be a lulu so that if they were planning on taking a break, "Don't go away now!" At 8:23, Rather gushed, "Things are getting fairly wild out there!" At 9:47, Rather exclaimed, "This thing is getting very, very interesting!"

CBS shrewdly trotted out all its superstars within the first hour of coverage: Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt, Mike Wallace (reporting on campaign financing), and Bill Moyers, who stopped Rather's runaway locomotive in its tracks with a few words of caution. "This is the night to beware the analyst who draws the moral before the tale is told," Moyers said. "We will show the messengers tonight, not the message."

Of course, this was advice that every network merrily ignored for hours thereafter.

Andy Rooney came along with a welcome unpretentious (and totally meaningless) commentary much later, at 10:20 -- so late, in fact, that Rooney complained, "If I'd known I was going to be on this late, I wouldn't have had this suit pressed."

For the record, at 9:15, while Chris Wallace was reporting on NBC, his father Mike Wallace was reporting on CBS.

NBC's multimillion-dollar duo of Mudd and Brokaw functioned far more effectively in this high-stress situation than they do as an electronically linked team on the "NBC Nightly News." Brokaw, who can be awfully drowsy on the evening news, gets his mojo going for conventions and elections (that's when he stops dreaming wistfully about those weekends in the mountains). He's still something of a puppy on the air, but Mudd's salty sagacity makes an apt complement. John Chancellor handled commentary duty capably.

Just after 9 o'clock, Kennedy was interviewed by an NBC News correspondent in Massachusetts. Then Brokaw and Mudd plunged in. After a brief conversation, Mudd said to Kennedy, "I'm glad we're talking again," which made Kennedy laugh and invite Mudd to come back to New England. It was the 1979 Mudd interview on CBS Reports, "Teddy," that was said to have essentially crippled Kennedy's bid for the presidency in 1980. Brokaw referred to the program as having appeared on "that other network," as if there were only two. Of course, last night, there were only two.

ABC is sometimes criticized for souping up the news with gimmicks, gewgaws and jazzy graphics, but the network was completely outdone in this department last night by CBS, which sported striking, computer-generated displays that included a bas-relief jigsaw puzzle map of the United States. Occasionally, CBS News let its illustrations carry it away; to explain the effect of presidential visits on state campaigns, an animated airplane was shown flying over the U.S. map with the states the president visited changing color as it passed. It looked like a ghastly visualization of a bombing raid.

At times, in fact, the CBS graphics made the coverage look like Election Pong. They were produced, a CBS News spokesman said last night, by two new machines: a Dubner and an Adda. "If it changes color and moves, it's a Dubner," said the spokesman--referring to the sometimes dizzying graphics, not the machine itself. Some of the glory of the effects was lost on black-and-white sets, however, where things colored blue and things colored red have a tendency to look much alike. NBC, meanwhile, relied on a pretty, if circussy, electric-light scoreboard that sat behind Mudd and Brokaw on the vast election-night set. This device not only flashed out results and breakdowns of data, it also led into commercial breaks with the legend "Stay Tuned" and then illuminated the six notes of the NBC election jingle on a musical staff.

Every network scrupulously stated its rules about projections and estimates and not calling races in states until that state's polls had closed, but their obedience to these rules tended to be lost in the wash of facts and figures that flooded the airwaves throughout the night.

As often, the most pompous personality on hand was ABC's Reynolds, who began the night awkwardly by saying to Brinkley, "David, it's a great pleasure to have you with us on this side of the channel battle for a change," to which Brinkley grumpily said nothing. Reynolds has the habit of folding his arms over his chest and leaning back in his chair, in an unattractive imperial pose, and he continues to pass out accolades like gold medals to reporters on the air. After a Lynn Sher piece from California, Reynolds said, "Thank you, Lynn--very informative."

The ABC coverage came off as a buncha guys sitting around killing time. The network even wasted precious seconds with elaborate opening billboards that pictured all the superstars ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge had gathered for the event. It looked like the opening of "The Love Boat." While Roonie's Raiders ruminated, CBS and NBC were spilling out results at breakneck speed.

But on CBS, Rather was careful to begin each 23-minute segment with a situationer on trends and results up to that point. That and the excellence of the CBS graphics were particularly helpful in keeping track of the numerous races being run. As for the network news race, it was CBS News by more than a country mile.

Local Washington coverage of area races was, by contrast, undistinguished and slow-footed. Channel 4 hogged and squandered an entire hour for local returns at 11 p.m., instead of the more reasonable half-hour. At one point during prime-time coverage, Channel 7 dallied over its own local cut-in so long that it had to join ABC News coverage -- and an interview with Tip O'Neill -- three or four minutes late.

J.C. Hayward spent considerable airtime stammering during one report on Channel 9, which earlier threw the ball to correspondent Kent Jarrell at Trible headquarters and then grabbed it right back again, so that Jarrell could only say, "They think -- well, back to Washington." This enabled Channel 9 to shoehorn in a commercial and one of its asinine and insulting news promos -- with similar promos proliferating on Channels 4 and 7. Later, WDVM twice made the stupid decision to remain with its clumsy local coverage rather than return to the network, where Dan Rather, still turbo-charged after four hours on the air, was doing more pirouettes and miraculous dives than there were in "Superman 1" and "Superman 2" put together.

Rather was scheduled to remain on the air until 2 a.m., then saunter over to the CBS News "Nightwatch" program for a "debriefing" on the air. Awesome. Totally awesome.