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Troubled ABC will rely on reruns

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Just how much trouble is ABC in these days?

Enough so that the network has decided it will be better off airing reruns of "Home Improvement" rather than original episodes of other sitcoms.In a move that's all-but unprecedented, ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses announced that the network is going to begin the fall season by airing "Home Improvement" reruns on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in addition to new episodes in its regular 8 p.m. time slot.

ABC, of course, has done that for some time. And other networks have made similar moves.

But none of them has started a fall season with a regularly scheduled rerun. (The 1997-98 season offically begins on Sept. 22.)

"Soul Man," the show that was supposed to occupy the Tuesday at 7 p.m. time slot, will instead debut at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 - after the "Home Improvement" rerun.

(A special airing of "Drew Carey" is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m., followed by a "Home Improvement" repeat.)

"Soul Man" is now scheduled to slide up to 7 p.m. on Oct. 21. And the premiere of the new sitcom "Over the Top" - the show that was supposed to air on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. beginning Sept. 23 - has been delayed until Oct. 21.

The reason? It's simple.

"The decisions were made for purely competitive reasons," admitted Tarses.

Translation - ABC has no confidence that "Soul Man," the sitcom about a minister headlined by Dan Aykroyd, can compete with NBC's "Mad About You." Particularly because "Mad" will get a boost from bouncing baby Buchman, who was born in that show's season finale in May.

"By shifting `Soul Man's' time slot for the first few weeks of the season, we're giving this pivotal series the luxury to recapture its audience without intense premiere competition," Tarses said.

And she's probably right. "Home Improvement" reruns will probably do better up against "Mad About You" than original episodes of "Soul Man."

Of course, that's a rather sad statement about the strength of ABC's programming.

That explanation is easier to believe than the one Tarses provided for the delay in "Over the Top," a new series that casts Tim Curry and Annie Potts as a divorced couple running a New York hotel.

"After viewing several episodes of `Over the Top,' we're enthusiastic about its prospects," Tarses insisted, "and by moving its launch to October, we guarantee this series the best shot at success. We'll have more promotion time to devote to its premiere and it won't have to compete with the other fall comedy rollouts."

In theory, that's true. But the argument falls apart because of one rather important detail - "Over the Top" is utterly dreadful. There's no way this show is going to be a hit no matter when it premieres.

CASTING ABOUT: Jennifer Esposito ("New York Undercover," "Kiss Me Guido") is joining the cast of "Spin City" - she'll play Mike's new assistant.

Victoria Dillard, who played Mike's old assistant, Janelle, isn't leaving the show - her character has been promoted to be the mayor's assistant.

- Comedian and VH-1 personality John Fugelsang has been named co-host of "America's Funniest Home Videos," which will return to ABC as a midseason re-placement show.

He and MTV personality Daisy Fuentes replace Bob Saget, who either quit or was fired, depending on who you talk to.

- Apparently determined to maintain its tradition of bad acting - at least among actors playing human characters - "Babylon 5" has signed Tracy Scoggins.

She'll play Capt. Elizabeth Lochley when the show begins its fifth season in January on TNT.

Scoggins, whose TV credits include "The Colbys" and the first season of "Lois & Clark," replaces Claudia Christian (Commander Susan Ivanova), who apparently made contract demands the producers wouldn't meet.