Between 7:30 and 7:35 pm on Dec. 17—right in the middle of A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa on KOB Channel 4—television screens will go blank in as many as 12 percent of the homes between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

For five minutes, rabbit ears will pick up white noise as the region’s TV stations broadcast digital signals from the Sandias for the first time in preparation for the nationwide digital transition on Feb. 17.

Viewers who subscribe to cable or satellite services, or who have purchased a new digital TV or a digital converter box for their old TVs, won’t miss a minute of programming. The rest will get a taste of what’s coming in February: dead static (which will still probably top Santa’s Funniest Moments, hosted by Erik Estrada, on KUPT Channel 29).

In May, Nielsen Company rated the Albuquerque-Santa Fe media market as the 9th worst prepared for the transition. By October, the region’s ranking had actually worsened: Albuquerque-Santa Fe audiences are the 6th worst prepared of the nations top 56 media markets. Nearly 13 percent of households in the area are “completely unready” and 10 percent are “partially unready.”

The US Department of Commerce is responsible for dishing out $1.5 billion in $40 coupons for digital converter boxes. This means oversight of the transition will be one of the first responsibilities for Gov. Bill Richardson, who was tapped to head the agency by President-elect Barack Obama.

The New Mexico Media Literacy Project, which considers television access a human rights issue, says there isn’t one factor to explain why New Mexico is behind the curve for digital transition. However, consumers are inundated with conflicting information from the government, cable companies, satellite service providers, hardware manufacturers and retail stores.

“When we look at the amount of money that has gone into how the government made their decision to do the outreach, I think there could have been smarter ways to do this,” NMMLP Executive Director Andrea Quijada says of the coupon program. “I think if everyone had just been sent a converter box with information, it would’ve been the easiest and cheapest way in the long run.”

Part of the problem in New Mexico is that areas that pick up signals from low-power stations and translators won’t switch until 2012.

“[For example], if you live in Taos or Española or Artesia or Alamogordo, you’re not going to be affected,” New Mexico Broadcasters Association President and CEO Paula Maes tells SFR. “Eventually you’ll need to get a box, but you don’t have to get one for Feb. 17.”

Perhaps Maes should tell that to the operators running the NMBA’s new digital conversion hotline (1-866-961-2487), who told SFR: “All states, no matter where you’re at, will have to switch over as of February.”

Quijada says, to be safe, consumers should put converter boxes that accept both analog signals as well as digital on their Xmas lists. (The NMBA hotline operator admitted she never heard of the “analog pass-through” feature.)

And they should buy them now: The $40 discount program ends in March and there’s no guarantee a second one will be initiated for 2012.

Richardson’s office declined to comment on whether he would pursue funding for New Mexico’s television needs.

“Well, I think they’re going to have to make some allowance for this part of the country,” Maes says.

NMMLP has more local information on digital transition at

. NMBAA also has a Web site for New Mexico households at