60-day countdown: Be aware of the digital TV transition’s affect on fitness equipment

In two months the switch will be flipped and analog transmission will be no more. All television stations will change to digital broadcasting under the federal government’s program that has the goal of supplying better TV pictures and more space on the airwaves. This could affect many using fitness equipment with what is called a “TV reception device."
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In two months the switch will be flipped and analog transmission will be no more. All television stations will change to digital broadcasting under the federal government’s program that has the goal of supplying better TV pictures and more space on the airwaves.

What some people may have missed is that this deadline not only could affect Joe Couch Potato, but also could affect many using fitness equipment with what is called a “TV reception device.” In danger of losing reception on Feb. 17 is any equipment with built-in entertainment screens -- commonly called a personal viewing screen -- or any add-on screens if they were sold without a digital tuner.

“The day is coming. It’s going to be a wake-up call particularly for club owners,” said Peter Haigh, a longtime consultant in the fitness entertainment industry, with more than four decades of telecommunications experience. “It’s really scary.

“As of Feb. 17, if a club uses an antenna to pick up local television channels, these older analog-only screens will no longer receive those channels, and there’s nothing that can be done with some of the equipment right now,” he added.

The Federal Communications Commission required that all companies, including fitness equipment or entertainment suppliers, equip their screens with digital tuners if they were to be imported into the United States or sold in interstate commerce after March 1, 2007. That was the final date for compliance after a number of years of postponement during which time the FCC phased in the requirement – first requiring the largest reception devices (including TVs, VCRs and DVRs) to have the tuners and slowly downsizing until the law required all to have them. An exception allowed suppliers and manufacturers to sell from current inventory if an alert was prominently posted on the equipment.

Many clubs have equipment on their floors, just as retailers may have equipment in warehouses or consumers may already have equipment in their homes, which was sold before the deadline – or even was sold afterward but didn’t have the required built-in tuner. (Click here to see FCC consumer information as well as the alert’s required wording.)

A few large-scale retailers and others were caught in a compliance dragnet in April 2008 when the FCC found many were not fully disclosing the lack of a digital tuner or were shipping and selling goods not in compliance with federal code number 47cfr15.117. Those included mass merchant biggies such as Wal-Mart, Circuit City and Target, who were levied a total of nearly $4 million in fines. But Precor as well as Vivitar TV manufacturer Syntax-Brillian were also fined a total of $1.6 million, with Precor’s share being $358,000. At the time, Precor claimed its devices were not violating the code because the equipment was sold only to its commercial customers. An anonymous website was posted last year that detailed the information. To see it, go to www.truthaboutcardiotheater.com.

TV reception and changes

There are three ways to get channels and shows on your screen:

1. Over the Air – often called OTA, this is the old-fashioned way using an antenna

2. Satellite – Signals transmitted to a satellite are then send back to earth and received by a TV using a receiver

3. Cable – otherwise known as CATV or community antenna TV

OTA reception is purely analog, and if that’s all somebody has they will receive no signal as of Feb. 17. The government is offering a program to allow people still using an antenna (a.k.a. “rabbit ears”) to buy a converter box at a discount so they don’t have to buy new TVs or subscribe to cable or satellite services. (Click here to see details about that program)

“You can still use your old TV but you need to have a converter box,” Haigh said, noting that this scenario affects a relatively small number of clubs or other facilities but could affect somebody at home.

If you are using a satellite system for all TV reception, there should be no change in anything you are doing or receiving. However, if you receive local channels via an outdoor antenna, you may need a digital converter box.

“It’s simple,” said Tony Garcia, founder of MYE Entertainment (www.myeclubtv.com). “You just have to make sure your TV has a digital tuner.”

Those using cable may experience glitches, not only at clubs but also at homes, although home users will have less complicated solutions. One exception is that although some cable companies may go, or may have already gone, totally digital in transmission, they are not required to do so for about two years. The recommendation from experts is to check with a local cable companies to find out when they will change since it is to a provider’s advantage to change, and most will.

Cable companies also have the option to “encrypt” all or part of the signal they provide, meaning even if users or pieces of equipment have a digital tuner, if they don’t have a “cable box” or a special cable card, they won’t be able to decrypt the signal and will not get reception. Some companies may offer a limited number of unencrypted channels (one to 20 for example), also known as “free Quam,” which will be available without any special equipment. Garcia also noted that each box is designed to connect to one unit with the use of a remote control, so they aren’t a good option in clubs.

“A lot of people don’t know,” Garcia said. “You can take my word for it. This is all we do all day long.”

Indeed, the FCC has spoken mostly to the home user more interested in surfing channels from the couch than to clubs with a roomful of TVs or anyone with a built-in screen at home.

“The broadcasters, cable companies and satellite companies have all done an exceedingly good job of publicizing this change. The only problem is that their advertising has been aimed at the residential consumer, not the commercial fitness clubs equipped with personal viewing screens,” Haigh explained. “What works in a residential situation may be totally unattainable in the commercial marketplace. Unfortunately, broadcasters don’t know the club market, and the manufacturers are being very, very quiet.”

Should I worry? Maybe

Chances aren’t great that big screens or equipment bought through about 2004 will have a built-in digital tuner. New TVs or equipment with screens bought since 2004 may have digital tuners, but many according to the FCC information site (www.dtv2009.gov) were “dumb,” meaning they could pick up the signal but need the special cable connection or converter box. Those were usually labeled “HD ready” or “HDTV monitor.”

The biggest issue will be encryption of signals since every screen or TV will need its own box. For home equipment users, that’s less of an issue since they can position the box on a nearby shelf away from the possibility of sweat, a remote won’t likely get taken by another user or disappear, and there won’t likely be any other user whose channel-changing sprees will affect a home user’s own viewing.

Clubs or other group facilities are a different matter, Haigh explained. Remotes required to change channels on a box can go AWOL, and if somebody exercising near you is less than accurate with pointing the remote, they may change your channel. Plus, exercise equipment hasn’t been designed with a place to put a box. (See one club's solution, photo right.)

DTVICantMakeThisUpSM.jpg

“It would be ridiculous to do,” Garcia said regarding using the boxes for equipment in most facilities, except perhaps in a small hotel workout room.

Garcia said multi-screen facilities should be sure their TVs are upgraded, but he can’t say how many channels each will be able to get.

The other option is something telecommunications folks call a “headend” system (also called a “channel modulating system”), which is a rack of equipment that can cost many thousands of dollars, depending on the number of channels a multi-screen facility wants to receive. Garcia compared it to creating your own TV. The anonymous website, www.truthaboutcardiotheater.com, also offers helpful advice and charts showing degree of impact and options, as does Haigh’s website, www.peterahaigh.com.

The question is of course how many non-digital-ready pieces of equipment are out there. That is tough to answer accurately since it is still a relatively new technology. Technogym told SNEWS® all of its equipment now includes a digital tuner. Life Fitness and Precor also said its commercial equipment is now appropriately equipped, although a Life Fitness customer servicer representative in the fall did tell a potential home buyer that a home treadmill did not have the tuner and a user would need a box. Products with embedded equipment may be the biggest issue, experts said, especially if touch controls on the screen are no longer accessible.

Although the FCC required accurate labeling, it may not have always happened. Plus, if a manufacturer had equipment in a warehouse, it could be shipped legally inside the state since the FCC code only specified no interstate commerce after March 2007.

For the most up-to-date and accurate information about the transition, albeit not related to the fitness industry, go to the FCC’s website, www.dtv.gov

--Therese Iknoian

SNEWS® View: All of the information floating around publicly pertains to home TV users and not to fitness equipment with embedded screens or multi-TV facilities such as health clubs. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” is the message that is floating around, but it may not apply to the fitness industry, which operates under a different set of needs. It is vital that retailers and dealers check with their suppliers about the status not only of current equipment but also of any older equipment they have in stock, have recently sold, or that may still be shipped. Retailers should be very clear with customers about what they need. Clubs should also check with their suppliers, and dealers should also check with their club clients so they don’t catch flak if a problem arises. And everybody should check with their local cable providers about the company’s plans for its own transition. This may not be the nightmare that some are saying it could be. But it could be a bit of a headache for many clubs and facilities. And even home users who only have one cable box on their main TV and not on their exercise equipment may hit “quick start” and wonder what happened to their personal viewing screen or the TV in their exercise room. Waiting until Feb. 17 to see what happens isn’t the answer.

--SNEWS Editors

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