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PBS Ombudsman

A Tale of Two Actresses

For those of you who want a little diversion from politics, here's one of those stories that journalists sometimes describe, jokingly, as "too good to check," or "you couldn't make this one up." These are usually stories rich with irony or hypocrisy, and sometimes they turn out to be true.

It started on Monday, Nov. 6, with this brief e-mail from John Ordover of Brooklyn, NY: "So, Melanie Martinez is fired from 'The Good Night Show' for her seven-year-old videos, but her replacement, Michele Lepe, is playing a prostitute in a movie coming out on November 28. The movie is 'Jamaica Motel.'"

Some history is necessary to understand why this caught my eye.

As viewers of "The Good Night Show" and readers of the ombudsman's column will know, the firing of Martinez last summer produced quite a stir. Several hundred people wrote to me protesting the firing (I still get a couple of e-mails a week on this subject) and thousands of people either e-mailed PBS or signed online petitions opposing her removal and demanding she get her job back.

Martinez was the very popular host of "The Good Night Show," a very popular bedtime program for pre-schoolers that had its debut last year and that is part of PBS KIDS Sprout, a digital cable/video-on-demand channel that involves a partnership among Comcast, which is the largest shareholder, HIT Entertainment, PBS and Sesame Workshop.

But last July 20, the program posted a notice to parents that said: "Late last week, Melanie Martinez, host of The Good Night Show, alerted us to the Internet posting of an independent short film she appeared in seven years ago. PBS KIDS Sprout has determined that the dialogue in the video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character's credibility with our audience. As a result, PBS KIDS Sprout has decided that she will no longer appear as host." The announcement went on to say that the program's "foremost priority is to do what is best for our young viewers and their families."

Martinez, a stage and TV actress with a toddler of her own, was featured in two 30-second videos seven years ago, long before her association with PBS. They were spoofs — parodies, meant to be funny, of teen sexual abstinence public-service advertisements — produced by an outfit called TechnicalVirgins.com. They are not pornographic. She is dressed in schoolgirl attire. But they definitely deal with activities and objects that will keep you from becoming pregnant. The language is edgy and explicit — she talks, for example, about choosing anal sex because her future is too important for her to become pregnant — but nothing worse than what an adult might see in a 30-second "Saturday Night Live" skit.

More History

I found the clash between her fans and PBS fascinating and I wrote two columns about it, one on Aug. 3 and an earlier one on July 26. Many of the viewers who were upset said Martinez should not have been removed because of a part she played as a young actress in what was clearly a spoof and one that would never be seen by the pre-schoolers.

I said, at the time, that had the videos become widely available on the Web and been seen by a lot of parents there probably also would have been a lot of parents who would have objected to her presence. Nevertheless, I took a different view from the KIDS Sprout executives. I found Martinez's removal disturbing and not in keeping with an organization committed to freedom of expression. I felt that PBS, or the Sprout consortium, should have stuck by her; that it was unfair to punish her for a 30-second role early in her acting career. "To me," I wrote, "it has too much of a whiff of after-the-fact loyalty oaths and purity checks on performers who do lots of different things."

In any event, Melanie and the issue went away until Mr. Ordover wrote to me. Ordover, it turns out, is the producer of the videos that Martinez appeared in seven years ago. So he has a continuing interest in the aftermath and is not exactly your average viewer.

Two days later, however, a woman in Denver, CO, wrote to ask: "Is it true that the new host of PBS' The Good Night Show plays a police woman who poses as a prostitute in an upcoming movie? This is being spread around online and it makes me very concerned for PBS, if this is true. Melanie was essentially fired as the previous host of the show for being an actress before she was on Sprout. But PBS went further by saying that the content of the video Melanie acted in did not make her credible to her audience. How is portraying a prostitute going to be credible to this same audience? I am 67 years old, since when have prostitutes ever been good role models for children?"

A New Character Appears

On the same day that Ordover wrote to me, something else caught my eye. It was a lengthy article in the Web edition of "Multichannel News" that announced the "rebirth of a signature show." It was about the hiring of a 31-year-old bilingual actress from Miami, FL, Michele Lepe, to be the new permanent host of "The Good Night Show." She would fill Martinez's former role, the story said, when the show "relaunches" on the Dec. 18 PBS KIDS Sprout program.

The article quoted PBS KIDS Sprout executives, including President Sandy Wax, as saying how much they had learned from the publicity crisis that afflicted this new and popular show last summer, when Martinez was removed, and that the three finalists for the new permanent host were vetted as thoroughly as possible. "We just can't have any surprises, and there's a higher standard when you're dealing with little kids," Wax tells Multichannel News. "We have to be extra careful about our audience, to protect them."

So having read Ordover's e-mail about Lepe supposedly playing a prostitute in a new movie, and having read Wax's talk about thoroughly vetting would-be successors to Martinez, who was fired over the video spoofs, I became interested once again.

A 'Short Film,' Not a Movie

First, the "movie" that Lepe is a part of is actually what is known as a "short film," a 10-12 minute vignette of one night's activities in a motel setting. It was produced by two young present and former film students associated with the University of Miami. It is not commercially available. I have been unable to get a copy from the University, which said its "use of student films is solely for educational and festival purposes," or from the producers thus far.

Second, when I sent a copy of Ordover's e-mail to Jenni Glenn, Sprout's director of public relations, asking if it was true that Lepe is playing a prostitute in some new film, she said: "Not true. This erroneous information was placed by an unknown user into the IMDB database. Michele plays a police officer named Miriam in this short film."

That's true, but online reviewers who have seen the film at a preview in Miami last May say that she plays an undercover cop acting as a prostitute and trying to trap "johns," or clients, in a prostitution sting at the motel. There are, apparently, a couple of undercover cop roles involved in the film.

Finally, the point of this column really has nothing to do, personally, with Lepe or Martinez. Sprout officials are very enthusiastic about Lepe and it seems to me that she should get the job if she is the most talented, just as I felt Martinez should have been able to keep her job based on her talent and her popularity with youngsters and their parents.

Rather, the point goes to the issue of irony, possibly double standards, and maybe also to the vetting process, if that is to be understood as especially important now based on what happened to Martinez.

I wrote to Glenn again, saying that it was "my understanding that she plays an undercover cop posing as a prostitute," and asking "Are you saying that is wrong? Did Sprout officials see the short film 'Jamaica Motel'? Were you aware of it when Ms. Lepe was hired?" She answered that, "Yes, we are aware of Michele's role as an undercover police officer in the short film Jamaica Motel. Prior to her hiring, Michele disclosed all of her television and film credits to Sprout." This does not answer the question of whether Sprout officials had actually seen the film, and does not acknowledge the playing of the prostitute role as an undercover officer.

Some Reviews

Here are some excerpts from two reviews of the film that appeared online on May 4, following a preview in Miami Beach and prior to the film's showing at the University's Canes Film Festival the following weekend.

From a MiamiHerald.com review: "Two drug dealers smoke weed and watch porn while waiting for a deal. A discouraged detective poses as a prostitute to execute a sting. Reluctantly, a young woman cheats on her unsuspecting fiancé with a former lover. This is just one night in director Aaron J. Salgado's Jamaica Motel . . .

"One scene shows the two real life friends smoking marijuana, watching porn and casually comparing their taste for women's feet. One likes them French pedicured and pristine, while the other likes 'stripper feet with enough corns for a Mexican tortilla' . . .

"In fact, only two of the film's main stars, Michele Lepe and Michael Cardelle, have previous acting experience, and everyone in the cast and crew is local."

From miaminewtimes.com:

"Jamaica Motel, a twelve-minute drama that describes a dark and raunchy realm where clandestine adulterers, prostitutes working their johns, and drug dealers on the grind can rent rooms by the hour . . .

"Jamaica Motel tells the story of an undercover cop who catches his cheating wife and her lover in a motel room next door to gun-packing marimberos . . .

"In the movie, Raul's wife Caro (played by Monica Minagorri) engages in some hanky-panky with her lover Mike (played by Michael Cardelle) in one room at the Jamaica while Raul works a prostitution sting in another room. In still another habitacion, the wild dreadlocked Tropyco and L.E.X., also a Miami hip-hop artist, play blunt-blazing criminals Gomez and Stress, respectively, who are waiting to score $5,000 in cocaine from their neighborhood supplier."

A 23-second movie trailer that can be seen on "YouTube" shows the two guys smoking and talking about women's feet. The clip alternates between the guys sitting in a car and a motel room. They use the "f"word and "n" word twice and the "b" word, referring to women, once.

Is This a Repeat Performance?

So is there a parallel between this film and Lepe's appearance in it and the videos that got Martinez fired?

Martinez, in the how-not-to-get-pregnant spoofs, is shown dressed as a teenager and her punch line in one video is about anal sex. In the other video she is also fully clothed and shown being handed a self-stimulating device, apparently by her mother.

The reviews of "Jamaica Motel" do not report any graphic sex scenes involving Lepe. Asked about the film, the reviewers said they didn't remember exact details because it was seen several months ago. Both said the film itself had sexually suggestive episodes involving another couple, but Lepe's role, as recalled, involved mostly one-liner exchanges with "tricks" and other actors playing her partners. According to the recollection of the Miami New Times reviewer, Lepe plays one of three undercover cops. She is dressed like a street walker trying to trap johns in a prostitution sting at the motel. Nothing too visually graphic, he said, but definitely of an adult nature. Another reviewer said later that the film's language and content is pretty strong and the talk about drugs and sex pretty graphic. Definitely not for young kids, she said.

It is, of course, hard for me or anyone else to make more precise assessments without having seen this 10-12 minute film, and the odds are that not many people will ever see it. Buts the odds are also that the kids who watched Martinez on "The Good Night Show" would never have seen those videos either, nor would their parents. And even though Lepe plays an undercover cop appearing as a prostitute, and may not say anything as jolting as Martinez did in one of the spoofs, the film itself clearly would not seem to be one that KIDS Sprout officials would find "appropriate" and want to be seen as a showcase for its new kids show star and host.

On the other hand, my guess is that Sprout officials never saw this film. If that is the case, then the vetting process fell short. Even though there are differences in the cases of the past and future hosts, the decision-making here looks to me to be inconsistent. Both of these women are actors. In my book, if Lepe is right for the part, she should be hired and not judged by the content of a film in which she "acted" before she was associated with PBS. But I also felt that way about Martinez.

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