ABC used to be irreverently known as the "Almost Broadcasting Company" in the days when the network knew only the agony of defeat in the ratings race. Later, Milton Berle liked to joke that a solution to the Vietnam War would have been to put it on ABC, where it would have been canceled in six weeks.

That was before Fred Silverman came to the network and pulled it from the gutter. But as a character in at least one old ABC show once noted, "You're born in the gutter, you die in the gutter." ABC has taken up gutter residence again. Its new fall lineup is a catastrophe, and for most weeks of the season the network has been in grubby third place, well behind previously perennial loser NBC.

In Hollywood, where rumor mills have salad bars, the latest TV gossip is that ABC has entreated Silverman to return and work the trick again. Silverman could not be reached yesterday for comment.

As part of the network's frantic prime-time damage control, three new situation comedies will be plopped onto the air in the week ahead. Two of them, "Never Again" and "Mr. Mom," air tonight at 9 and 9:30 on Channel 7. Both are nearly as worthless as the show they replace: "Hawaiian Heat," a program ABC tried for weeks to deny it canceled. But canceled it is.

If you paid attention to ABC's "Hawaiian Heat" promos, you would have known something was amiss. In a recent spot plugging the show, the heroes were seen bobbling around in a sick chopper. One shouted, "We aren't gonna make it, are we?" and then the announcer growled, "The time's running out for 'Hawaiian Heat'!" It must have been some house wag's idea of an in-joke.

ABC may have a death wish, in the way NBC seemed to have one for years and years (perhaps the old NBC jokes can be dusted off and used now for ABC, like, "What's the difference between ABC and the Titanic?" "The Titanic had a band"). The network has stubbornly stuck with garbagey fluff churned out by its favorite producer, Aaron Spelling ("Love Boat," "Finder of Lost Loves"), even though viewers appear finally to have tired of this particular virus. Incredibly, one of the rescuers ABC is reportedly considering to replace one of its new fall bombs is "Arthur Hailey's Airport," yet another Spelling production that one can bet will not differ markedly from "Arthur Hailey's Hotel." And Spelling has a credit on the execrable "Mr. Mom." Because he was executive producer of the film the series is based on, he's "executive consultant" to the series.

Spelling the multimillionaire is pictured in the current Vanity Fair lying on an opulent bed in a Fila sweatsuit. His ties with ABC are so strong, he might as well be the network's chief programmer. If there were no such thing as bad taste, Spelling would have invented it. And ABC would have bought it from him.

Flop shows, terrible reviews, hooting ridicule -- it couldn't happen to a worse network, because there isn't a worse network. ABC has always had the lowest level of program quality, in its doormat days and in the days when it was a dismaying Number One. The saving graces over the years have been mini-series and movies like "Roots," "The Day After" and "The Thorn Birds," but nothing that ambitious has been scheduled for this year. Instead they're doing "Hollywood Wives" and "Lace II."

Do networks have personalities, the way the big studios did in their heyday? To some extent, yes. CBS shows have a certain shimmer and substance even when they are junk -- the legacy of William S. Paley. NBC really is a broadcasting company, fat and sluggish as a business but more hospitable to innovation and risk than its competitors. ABC has always depended for success on stooping a little lower than the other guys. And an executive at a major Hollywood production company said yesterday that ABC is "absolutely" the worst network to deal with from a producer's point of view. Unless the producer is Spelling, of course.

No good TV critic would ever have thought of ABC as the best network. There's always been something crummy about it. Electronic Media magazine recently polled 36 TV critics to determine their favorite shows. Only two ABC shows made the top 10 -- the fewest of any network -- and three of the five shows most often cited as the worst were ABC's.

As for the new shows premiering tonight, ABC publicity coyly refers to "Never Again" as "a contemporary new comedy about two men and a woman whose unexpected friendship breaks all the rules and creates new ones." It sounds like a dirtier "Three's Company," if that's possible, but the show itself is a melancholy mope about three colorless single slouches looking for love.

It's sprinkled with cutesily suggestive wheezes. "Thanks for being so sweet, and why is your hand on my breast?" asks Abbey (Jamie Rose) of Larry (Judge Reinhold). Of course the camera is on a tight shot of their faces; you can say it, you just can't show it. There are references to grabbing "a boob" and copping "a feel." And so on. The third member of the trio is a sad-sackish Allen Garfield. He looks like he's longing for the relative dignity of the unemployment line.

"Mr. Mom" is based on the movie comedy that starred Teri Garr and Michael Keaton, the two reasons it succeeded. Naturally they have been replaced in the TV version by two second (rate) bananas: Rebecca York and Barry Van Dyke (who is Dick's son and has some of his father's mannerisms but little of his flair for physical comedy). All the most obvious jokes about a suddenly unemployed man -- in this case, a Detroit auto engineer -- who becomes a house husband are trotted painfully by. The tot actors playing the kids are from the bottom of that rapidly depleting barrel. This synthetic sitcom family doesn't even look like a real synthetic sitcom family.

Truth be told, the third of ABC's new sitcoms, "Off the Rack," which premieres Friday, Dec. 7, is not terrible. Eileen Brennan is very funny as the widow of a businessman who was partnered with Ed Asner in a clothing firm; she determines to succeed her husband after his death. Asner is fat and gruff, and Brennan, returning to series TV for the first time since a serious traffic accident, is tart and bright.

No, you can't lose 'em all. And though ABC is wallowing in a prime-time tar pit, and its daytime schedule is sinking, too, the network is expected to end 1984 with record profits anyway. With help from the Super Bowl in January and trashy mini-series in February and May (crucial ratings sweeps months), ABC is likely to improve its competitive position. For the moment, however, its lowly fate is something those with an ounce of respect for television can enjoy. As for ABC executives, those who are waiting for axes to fall can console themselves with the lyrics to the "Mr. Mom" title tune: "Life goes on; laugh it off."