WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has told the nation's cities they cannot outlaw satellite receiving dishes as a way to promote the growth of cable TV.
But the commission, partially preempting local zoning authorities, voted 3-1 that municipalities are within their rights to ban the dishes, considered by some to be unsightly, if they interfere with the public health, safety or welfare or if they conflict with "reasonable and clearly defined" aesthetic values.
The commission gave these examples of municipal actions:
--It said it would allow a town such as historic Williamsburg, Va., where all outside TV antennas are prohibited, to ban satellite dishes because they are not in keeping with colonial architecture.
--But it said the city of Chicago, which satellite enthusiasts charged with an attempt to ban receiving dishes so that cable operators would have a greater opportunity to prosper, could not use its zoning authority for that purpose.
Albert Halprin, the FCC's common carrier bureau chief, said the order was "designed to insure . . . that these (antennae) are not treated less favorably than" master antenna systems used by apartment houses or antennas erected by amateur radio operators.
Chairman Mark S. Fowler said the ruling allows cities to restrict satellite dishes only if the zoning authority can prove they are not using safety or aesthetic considerations as a pretext to give preferential treatment to other ways of delivering signals.
The ruling falls far short of a request by an antenna manufacturers' group called SPACE that the commission sharply limit the aesthetic considerations that could be used by local officials.
SPACE warned that allowing local zoning authorities to ban dishes because some people don't like their looks "would give opponents of earth stations a way to undermine" the FCC's intent "because aesthetic concerns are inherently subjective (and) communities could devise aesthetic standards to support even the most prohibitive zoning."
There are close to 2 million dishes in use, with 40,000 to 60,000 being sold each month.
Owners typically use them to watch movies and other programs being transmitted to cable TV systems without paying a fee to the program service.
Congress has made this legal as long as it is not done for commercial purposes, such as providing entertainment in a bar.
To combat this free viewing, some programming services are starting to scramble their signals.
Home Box Office, one of the largest pay programmers, and Cinemax were scheduled to become the first to scramble their signals fulltime on Wednesday.