The great scare of 1986 has faded and satellite dishes, if not enjoying a booming business, are in good health.

That may surprise some people who predicted three years ago that backyard dishes were doomed after Home Box Office and other premium services began to scramble their signals.Dishes took off in the very early 1980s. Consumers seemed to be purchasing those 10- to 16-foot monsters as fast as they could be manufactured. The allure was easy to understand if the price tag wasn't.

After an initial outlay of, in some cases as much as $10,000, a proud owner could pick up anything that was beamed on the then-dozen or so satellites in the skies and it was free. HBO, The Movie Channel, Cinemax and all the rest were there to be enjoyed without worrying about a monthly cable bill.

Not everyone, of course, purchased dishes "to beat the system." Many were bought by people who lived in rural areas where there was no cable and little hope of having it in the near future.

But as the number of dish owners grew, cable companies and cable services began to view them as "pirates" who were stealing signals. That also began to translate into lost revenue. The cable folks were also dealt a blow when the legal system declared that dish owners were breaking no law.

So to combat the "theft," HBO announced that beginning in January, 1986, its signal would be scrambled. Gradually, the other premium services followed. Soon even the superstation signals such as WGN, TBS and WOR also were scrambled.

"The skies go dark," proclaimed one newspaper headline. Potential dish owners suddenly lost interest. The sale of dishes dropped off dramatically for a while and many companies bailed out of the business. Some, however, weathered the storm to see dish sales rebound in recent months. One of those is Earth Stations of Columbia, S.C., which began operating in 1979.

Norman Goldberg, who runs Earth Stations, thinks one of the reasons he and several other companies survived is because of honesty. He said he never tried to hide from his customers the fact that scrambling eventually would take place.

With a dish, an owner is able to customize his own package of satellite services.

Dish owners even have their choice of television guides.

While some people may see a dish as a great substitute for cable, Goldberg cautions that cable does offer some advantages that a dish doesn't.

"People need to know those things before they think about buying," he said. "There is a certain amount of maintenance that goes with a dish system. You can count on spending an average of $100 a year to keep it up. That's a worry you don't have with cable.

"Also with cable you can have five or six hookups in your house and watch something different on every set. You can't do that with a dish. You can hook up more than one set to a dish system, but everybody has to watch the same thing."

Still, there are some advantages to having a dish.

"You can pick up a lot more channels," Goldberg said. "Actually, I don't think you should try to compare cable and dishes. They are two entirely different animals. It's like trying to compare a radio with an audio tape recorder. Both are audio, but they are very different forms of entertainment."

Another advantage is that dish owners automatically receive the pure signal of any stereo broadcast. Even if you don't have a stereo TV set, you can hook up the signal to a stereo amplifier. In the 1990s, dish owners may have another advantage. With the rising interest in high definition television, they will probably be the first to benefit from such telecasts.

Before anyone thinks seriously about purchasing a satellite TV dish system, a check of his or her neighborhood zoning ordinances is in order.