FOR MANY, the letter “Q” evokes images of the guy who equipped James Bond with gadgets, and not much else.

Those in the know, however, recognize Q scores — once mentioned only in hushed whispers — as an intriguing barometer of attitudes toward celebrity, combining familiarity and popular appeal to assign a rating (or score) to people and programs. And while the results often appear self-evident — crime shows are hot, comedies not so much — the latest Q survey pertaining to primetime looks more like an “X” for so-called reality television, which finds itself at a crossroads.

Because mere recognition plays a significant role in the scores, usual suspects occupy the top spots. For example, the most recent tally extending into October placed every edition of “CSI” and “Law & Order” within the Top 10, as well as the “CSI”-like “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case,” “Survivor,” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” cracked the Top 20, impressive for new series without years to build awareness and compile votes as “one of my favorites.”

The most interesting trend, though, involves reality, whose diminished ratings this fall coincide with an apparent shift in public perception.

“Reality in general seems to be lagging way behind where it was last year,” said Henry Schafer, exec VP of Manhasset, N.Y.-based Marketing Evaluations, Inc., the company behind the Q scores.

“The negative reaction has been huge. It’s kind of maxed out, in terms of … viewer appeal. There’s definitely a wear-out factor that I’m seeing, (and) it may be having some kind of negative halo effect in general.” The surprisingly durable “Survivor” remains an exception, he added, in part because people react to the aptly named program more like a drama than a reality show.

At this point, it seems pretty clear that the reality genre has exhausted, or is in the process of exhausting, its extended “but-with” phase, as in, “It’s a lot like ‘The Apprentice, but with (insert idiotic twist here).” If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of television, the sincerity risks dripping into living rooms.

THE QUESTION — sure to be raised at next week’s Hollywood Radio and Television Society panel “Reality Television 2004″ — is in the face of apparent creative bankruptcy that finally has adventurers of the unscripted trade pondering the future, what comes next?

Amid the recent demolition derby, two strains of reality have held their own: The feel-good, wish-fulfillment show (a la “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “The Biggest Loser”); and the smug, feeling-superior-to-others category (“Nanny 911,” “Wife Swap,” “Trading Spouses”), which uncomfortably adds minor children to the mix.

In short, reality can try getting ahead by being nicer or naughtier, more often than not tinged with a little cruelty and wholesale contempt for those involved.

As opposed to picking a direction, networks will invariably make like the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” and contort themselves, seeking to go both ways at once. Yet when push comes to shove, the concern is that nastiness will triumph, in large part because what people tell pollsters doesn’t reflect their behavior.

FOR THE CLEAREST DEMONSTRATION look no further than politics, where negative campaigning persists because it’s clearly effective, despite surveys indicating that the public is alienated by such tactics. Writer Aaron Sorkin — who knows something about both showbiz and politics — recently referred to “the mean-spiritedness of reality television” as pop culture’s most disturbing drift.

So while heart-warming is nice, the temptation will be to “go negative.” And since negativity tends to yield diminishing returns on deadened nerve endings, networks might have to go really negative to replicate the “Yikes” effect that earlier incarnations engendered.

To translate this to the holiday season, remember “A Christmas Carol,” where the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals the two pathetic children that cling to him, Ignorance and Want? In reality TV, those same creatures could be called Cruelty and Wish Fulfillment.

As the spirit warned Scrooge, beware them both, but most of all beware the former. Because as “Q” quantities and Nielsen numbers provoke queries about a reality quagmire, the questionable impulse to chase a quick fix will inspire quackery, not quality. All of which brings to mind the quotable advice of UCLA Coach John Wooden, who counseled, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

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