Tomorrow, some of our leaders in Congress are spending part of their day contemplating the words $#%#$, @!!@#, &%@#!*, and *^&$#. At issue for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet (whew!) is whether federal rules governing what words can be broadcast need to be made stricter.

One controversial incident that got a lot of people's attention occurred at last year's Golden Globes Awards, when singer Bono said, "This is really, really, f------ brilliant" on TV. NBC got away with it because, in effect, the word in question was used as an adjective and not a verb. This year's Golden Globes (broadcast this past Sunday) were shown with a 10-second delay, permitting NBC to yank out any offensive utterings. Meanwhile, some are clamoring for the Bono decision to be reversed.

What are the rules about all this, anyway? In a nutshell, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) divides objectionable language into two categories: obscene stuff, which is not allowed at any time, and indecent stuff, allowed only during certain hours.

If you've wondered why, despite the rules, you've heard so many surprising words on television in the past few years, part of the reason may be the fines the FCC levies for violations of the rules. They're currently capped at a measly $27,500 per incident. Legislation has been proposed that would increase the maximum tenfold, to $275,000 per utterance. FCC chief Michael Powell is in favor of reining in obscenity, and supports suggested changes. But as the folks at the Parents Television Council point out, "It's laughable the chairman would ask for increased fines given that he's never imposed one."

Another factor in all this is an economic one: Networks such as General Electric's (NYSE:GE) NBC, Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) CBS, Disney's (NYSE:DIS) ABC, and Fox Entertainment's (NYSE:FOX) Fox need viewers in order to survive, and many viewers appear to be drawn to programs that employ some raw language. The FCC restricts what can be uttered on the networks, but does not have jurisdiction over cable programming, so the networks argue that their ability to compete is being restricted. Others might argue that network programming is simply inferior.

Whatever the cause, the networks have been continually losing viewers to cable for many years now. This past November's sweeps period marked the first time that more prime-time viewers watched more cable than network TV.