The first step of Marion Edwards’ long journey in the international television business began with Venezuela.

Soon after graduating from the University of Denver in the early ‘70s, Edwards was interviewing for a job in the television finance department at Universal. She knew nothing about accounting — she’d majored in theater and psychology — and wasn’t particularly strong in math. But she wanted to move out of the secretarial pool at the studio. She hoped that the entry-level position in finance would be her ticket to more fulfilling work.

The interview seemed to be going well, and then the executive behind the desk threw Edwards a curve ball.

“He asked me ‘Do you consider yourself a good speller?’ I was honest and said I was probably an average speller,” Edwards recalls. “He said, ‘spell Venezuela.’ So I did, and I got it right. He said ‘You are an excellent speller! I’m going to hire you.’ So I got hired in the accounting department because I could spell Venezuela. Talk about a very serendipitous and weird start to your career.”

Weird or not, Edwards was destined to become a TV pioneer as her career slowly but surely blossomed from that first perch focusing on finance for international television deals at Universal.
Edwards is stepping down at year’s end after a 24-year run at 20th Century Fox Television Distribution. She has been the face of the studio in the international TV community for three decades, serving as president of international since 2007. The respected executive will be feted Oct. 18 at Mipcom with the inaugural Variety Vanguard Award recognizing individuals who make great contributions to the growth of the global television business.

Growth and change have been the only constants throughout Edwards’ four-decade career. In that time she has seen the business expand exponentially along with social, political, and cultural evolution in content-hungry regions stretching from Latin America to Asia to Africa and the Middle East. The privatization of television in countries that were previously dominated by one or two state-run outlets opened the floodgates of demand for American TV series, even as more channels began producing their own shows.

The success Edwards and her team have found in selling everything from gritty police dramas to frothy comedies has belied the conventional wisdom that international outlets only want shows stocked with fast cars and plenty of bikinis.

“There used to be rules, and then there were shows that broke the rules. For years and years it was westerns — we’d hear ‘We love the mythology of the cowboy.’ Then it was detective shows. Then it was, ‘give us “Baywatch,”’ ” Edwards says. “The bottom line that I have found is: Give me good TV. Whether it’s an espionage thriller or a beach show or a cop show with fast cars — if it’s really good television, people will respond to it.”

Edwards’ ascent to the top echelon of TV studio executives is notable because TV sales and distribution was an overwhelmingly male-dominated field in the years she was coming up at Universal TV and later MGM. As she brings her corporate life to a close, Edwards is gratified that her achievements and longevity are recognized as significant for an executive of either gender.

“There’s a moment in your life when you realize that being a woman is inextricably part of what you bring to every experience you have, but it also is not defining for your job,” Edwards says. “There comes a point when the fact that you’re a women doesn’t matter any more in defining your career and achievements.”

Edwards endured her share of sexism in the workplace, particularly in the early years. She recalls with bemusement the time an Australian TV executive refused to shake hands with her (“I was so taken aback”) and another time when her boss called her out of a sales meeting to ask her to make coffee for the group (she flatly refused). Looking back, she can’t help but laugh at what she calls “a liberal sprinkling of transitional experiences as people got used to having women in the workplace.”

Today, she is gratified by what she sees just by looking around the Fox lot, including her successor, Gina Brogi. “There’s nothing more delightful to me than to know there are women above me, below me, right next to me. Women are all through this business in really powerful positions,” Edwards says, citing Fox Television Group chairman Dana Walden and Jackal Group chief Gail Berman as examples. The gender diversity also is becoming evident overseas, she adds. “There are just a ton of great, super talented [female] executives outside the U.S. and inside the U.S.”

Edwards’ initial exposure to international TV sales came by happenstance, but she stayed on the international track because she fell in love with the travel and the people she met along the way. Working at Universal early on in her career was a blessing because the studio was a TV powerhouse that exported hit after hit overseas in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“I came up in this business with ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Bionic Woman,’ ” Edwards jokes. “Universal in those days was a factory, in the good sense of the word, turning out quality entertainment.”

Edwards advanced up the ranks at Universal to the point where she was overseeing everything in the international department other than sales. This was the period when studios shipped physical tapes to every client. Most channels would select eight to 10 episodes of a show each season to license. Making sure all of those contracts were sewn up and tapes and related marketing materials got where they needed to go — and came back to Universal City again — was a full-time job. But it wasn’t the job she wanted.

The opportunity to move into sales presented itself in 1989 when she left Universal for MGM. The only hitch was that MGM very quickly turned into a shambles, with banks foreclosing on then-owner Giancarlo Parretti, the Italian financier with a sketchy background.

After a wild three-year ride at MGM, Edwards was recruited to Fox by a executive who was bound for great things on the Century City lot: Jim Gianopulos, who at the time was heading international TV. “I think of that time as Jim airlifting me off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon,” Edwards says. “I felt like I was literally being rescued and given an opportunity.”

Edwards arrived at Fox as the studio was diving back into TV production in a major way after a period of inactivity. On her first day, she didn’t even have furniture in her office. The metaphor was not lost on Edwards — she’d been given a blank slate to craft the business as she saw fit. Achieving the authority she had long sought was invigorating.

“The business of making deals is much more creative than people often think,” Edwards says. “Sometimes if you think about how much money is at stake you might cripple yourself. But it’s the problem solving and the creativity it calls for that has really intrigued me.”

As she winds down her time at Fox, Edwards has been perusing through her mementos of a life spent frequently on the road. One such keepsake that reinforced the passage of time and the depth of changes in the world was a wallet full of foreign currencies — many of them worthless now that the euro is coin of the realm in much of Europe.

“It has been my privilege to have this job,” Edwards says. “I’ve been able to meet great people and go to fascinating places. I’ve worked with content that I’ve been proud to represent — shows that on their best days can educate and touch people. It’s hard to imagine how I could have had a better career.”