If you thought the potty-mouthed fourth graders on ''South Park'' (debuting June 20, 10 p.m.) had already pushed the primetime envelope as far as it could go, guess again. Now the kids will be talking s---, literally. The scatological expletive will be so common during the fifth season premiere that Comedy Central and the show's producers are holding a contest that asks fans to guess how many times the S-word and its various permutations are used. (The prize is a Vespa ET2 scooter.) ''We're working on a s--- meter,'' says ''South Park'' director of animation Eric Stough. ''We're still counting the number of s---s ourselves.''
In the premiere, aptly titled ''The Sh*t Show,'' Cartman, Kyle, Kenny, and Stan (all voiced by show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) discover that a popular network TV series called ''Cop Drama'' will air an episode in which the curse word is uttered. From that point on, the kids can't stop repeating the expletive. Though this particular episode would seem tailor-made for a visit from Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, the cuddly sewer dweller won't be making an appearance. ''We're saving him for Christmas,'' Stough explains.
Why did Parker and Stone pick the S-word and not one of the countless creative curses from ''South Park: The Movie''? ''It was easier for Trey to fit into the title of the show than any other word, and we don't want to go too far,'' admits Stough. ''We have to have somewhere to go from here.'' Indeed, things go farther south in the July 11 episode, when Cartman discovers his first pubic hair. ''The catch is how he gets his pubic hair,'' says Stough. ''Let's just say he's maturing faster than the others.''
All this might make most networks squeamish, but Comedy Central -- which usually bleeps offensive language -- accepted ''The Sh*t Show'' concept with open arms. ''We were actually pretty shocked,'' says Stough. ''They came back to us a day after we met with them and gave us their approval.''
Though the network's decision may seem surprising, it's perfectly legal. As a basic cable programmer, Comedy Central isn't subject to the rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which monitors network programming. But even on the major networks the occasional use of the S-word, as seen last year on CBS' ''Chicago Hope,'' isn't against the rules, either. ''A lot of people think that the decency laws are limited to the seven dirty words that George Carlin talked about [in his 1970s stand-up routine ''Filthy Words''], which isn't true,'' says Bob Peters, president of Morality in Media. He notes that the judgment in 1978's FCC v. Pacifica Foundation -- in which the FCC filed suit against a radio station that broadcast Carlin's monologue -- doesn't specify which words constitute obscene language. ''[Supreme Court Justice John Paul] Stevens said an isolated expletive would not be considered indecent in most circumstances,'' he says.
Easily offended viewers may feel better knowing that dirty words in popular media are hardly a new phenomenon. ''Piss, one of the seven dirty words [used by Carlin], is in the King James Bible,'' says Jesse Sheidlower, the principal editor of the North American editorial unit of the Oxford English Dictionary. He adds that the word s--- dates back to Old English and is a common Germanic word. ''Television is actually much tamer than reality, usually,'' he says. ''Cops use more vulgarity than what we see on 'NYPD Blue,' and even young teenagers use more of this vocabulary than what we see on most television shows. That's just the way it is.'' No s---.