Can something this ugly give you a beautiful picture?
They may get you stellar reception, but here on terra firma the large dish antennas for homeowners' satellite earth stations are winning anything but universal acclaim.
The presence of 12-foot-diameter dish antennas on suburban lawns is eliciting calls for zoning restrictions on antennas and right-to-satellite-dish laws.
With what appears to be an ear to the stars, the antennas pick up a proliferation of television signals relayed by satellites 22,000 miles above the earth. The available broadcasts range from Ted Turner's superstation to religious fare, Home Box Office, and dozens of other channels.
The dishes are generally too large to fit on the roof of a house, so owners have put them smack dab in the center of their yards. However great their entertainment value, for those whose view is limited to the antenna, the sight is anything but amusing.
''They're just plain ugly,'' says Peter M. Kelly, police commissioner of Kings Point, N.Y. His community passed an ordinance forbidding the construction of satellite earth stations on the basis of a dish antenna installed at a home in a neighboring town. ''And you don't just plop the thing in your yard,'' he says. ''It has to be set in concrete so it can pick up the signal.''
''I don't know what all the fuss is about,'' says the owner of a dish antenna in Wolcott, Conn. ''If someone else can plant a tree in their yard, why can't I plant an antenna?''
Not all towns or neighbors react with disdain; many are merely indifferent. Then there are Fred Hopengarten's neighbors. He is president of Channel One for Satellite TV in Boston and owns a backyard earth station. ''I have a neighbor who was already convinced her wisteria wasn't growing right because of my ham radio antennas,'' he says. ''I can't imagine what she thinks of my satellite antenna.''
Anywhere from 40,000 to 55,000 earth stations are now planted on plots of residential acreage or attached to customers' roofs in the United States. An additional 5,000 stations enter the distribution pipeline every month, according to industry figures. Two of the major markets for home satellite stations are rural dwellers, who must often endure weak TV signals, and apartment dwellers, who band together to split the cost of a dish, which is upwards of $10,000. For them, viewing a dish is rarely a problem.
But in the tightly packed lots of suburbia, satellite earth stations are about as inconspicuous as commercial searchlights, and to many, just as aesthetically pleasing. Their appearance has led to a flood of local ordinances restricting their use in dozens of towns from coast to coast. In one instance, an ordinance resulted in a lawsuit that ended in up in the Georgia Supreme Court. In short, the owner finally was forced to move his dish from the front yard to the backyard.
Most of the new laws simply require that the antennas at least be put in an owner's backyard or be concealed by bushes. But to be effective, the antennas need a clear view to the southern horizon because the satellites generally are in geosynchonous orbit above the equator. This means that often a dish has to be placed in the front yard - in clear view of neighbors.
The meteoric rise in sales forecasted for dish antennas may further cloud the issue. Kenneth G. Bosomworth, president of International Resources Development, a research-marketing firm that recently did a study on the subject, says there could be 15 million homes with small rooftop satellite dishes by 1990.
Ordinances that would regulate or outlaw what amounts to the least complicated component of satellite broadcasting has several corporate giants squirming. So far eight firms have won approval for direct satellite broadcasting.
But none of the companies is expressing too much concern. The satellites that will come on line in 1986 or later will be much more powerful and should require antennas that are only two or three feet in diameter and cost $350 to $450, though the technology is not yet operational. If the size of the antennas is reduced, they would likely be no more controversial than any other conventional rooftop antenna, says Mr. Hopengarten.
Nonetheless, one industry trade group is currently developing a model zoning ordinance they hope will satisfy both local communities and earth station owners.