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It’s 5:30 a.m. Lee Miller ’99, director of the TODAY Show with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager, walks through the doors of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, site of the first television broadcast in history and his professional workplace for the last 21 years.
By 6.a.m., he’s with the show’s camera personnel blocking out the four-hour show from 7-11 a.m. If there are changes to the show, this is the last time he can tell them.
When the clock strikes 10, the first half of the show is rebroadcast on the west coast to allow for breaking news. On a typical day, Miller takes over from 7-10am director Jim Gaines, but today, Gaines is preparing NBC’s 2020 Election Night coverage. Miller is running the entire show.
The director sits in the control room, cutting between cameras, inserting graphics, monitoring time and creating the overall look and feel of the show. At Miller’s right hand is a technical director listening to his cues and switching the show live on air.
After hundreds of shows, they often read each other’s cues without speaking. Hosts Kotb and Bush Hager come on the air at 10 a.m. on the dot. There’s no telling what happens after that.
“You plan for it, do the research, write notes, send it to Hoda and Jenna, 3,2,1 fade-up, cue them and…they do something completely different,” said Miller. “Usually better than what we had planned, just because the guests might say something ridiculous and it takes them down a tangent. You just have to be ready to run with it wherever they go.”
Growing up in Brentwood, Tenn. just outside Nashville, Miller wanted to work in mass communications but was really driven by his love of music. The son of two Auburn graduates, Ken Miller ‘73 and Jill (Crew) Miller ‘69, Miller already intended to go to Auburn, but found ‘home’ on the Plains when he joined the AU Singers.
It was at Auburn where Miller became fascinated with the TODAY Show. First broadcast in 1952, it’s the second-longest running show on TV behind “Meet the Press” and has featured countless celebrities over the years.
While on a summer tour of New York City, he learned where to apply for an internship when the AU Singers were featured in the crowd outside the TODAY Show. After months of following up, he landed an internship his senior year, but expected to be back in Brentwood after it ended.
But, during the internship, a receptionist position opened up for the show. While some interns saw the job as beneath them, he saw it as an opportunity. After graduating with a degree in Radio, TV and Film, Miller worked through the ranks as a production associate for five years, then as Weekend TODAY’s associate director for nine. He worked early mornings, late-night shifts, whatever he could get.
But, even in New York, Auburn had a funny way of reappearing. In 2002, Miller met his wife Ashley (Deitchman) Miller ’02 while watching a football game with the New York City Auburn Club.
“It was one of those bizarre stories—we were in school at the same time—I was a senior when she was a freshman, and I know that we were in the same place more than once, but we never met in school. Funny how that works out.”
The two married in 2011, and have already taken their two kids, Ellie and Daniel, to an Auburn game.
In 2014, Miller was directing “Weekend TODAY” in the morning and “Weekend Nightly News” in the evenings, working from 4 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Two years later, he was named full-time director of “Today’s Take” at 9 a.m. and then “Kathie Lee & Hoda” at 10 a.m. “Today’s Take” later became “Megyn Kelly TODAY,” but Miller stayed on with the ten o’clock hour. That was 5 years ago. He’s been there ever since.
In a wonderful coincidence, Miller’s music minor at Auburn dovetails with his directing work. Not only does TODAY have musical guests every week, but he also directs NBC’s Summer Concert Series on Rockefeller Plaza (when concerts were still possible). He’d come in early to listen to the band rehearse and plan camera angles—a sweet gig for an avid music fan.
“To have a guy like Sting come in at 5:30 in the morning and sound exactly like an album that I had listened to in the 80s just blew my mind. A guy like that, you’re like ‘wow,’ I get it, he’s the real deal.”
Meeting celebrities is commonplace these days. In 21 years, he’s met everyone he ever wanted to, including everyone he idolized growing up. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, Paul Simon, Hall and Oates, Jerry Seinfeld—the list goes on.
Some celebrities, like Lester Holt, became friends while working on the “Weekend Nightly News.” Compared to the convivial ease of the TODAY show, Miller says directing Weekend Nightly News was “like surgery.”
“It was precision—[we] labored over every word, every sentence, every script. I was more nervous doing Nightly News than I was doing Kathie Lee & Hoda because it had to be perfect. There was no room for showing a picture two sentences too late. That made me a much sharper news director.”
In April 2019, Miller directed possibly his best show to date, Kathie Lee Gifford’s farewell episode. A massive extravaganza of games and special moments that included a live studio audience of Kathie Lee superfans, surprise appearances from celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Barry Manilow and more, it had every type of segment and almost no rehearsal.
“That’s the most fun part of this [show],” said Miller. “It used to drive me crazy when I started, because you want to make a plan and stick to it. With this show there’s just no such thing, especially with Kathie Lee. You never knew where she was going to take things. I became a better director because of her, because her reactions to things were priceless. I always knew that it really wasn’t what we were talking about that was important, it was how she was reacting to it.”
Still, Miller had two goals in mind for the show: the first was to see Kathie Lee hug her son Cody; the second was to get a final shot of Kotb, Gifford and the new host, Jenna Bush Hager, together—a final ‘passing of the torch’ moment. They got both.
“I was so excited that I got both of those,” said Miller. “The shot where she hugged her son, I actually heard him say ‘I’m proud of you, and dad’s proud of you too.’ We all knew how much she loved her husband Frank Gifford, so to get that and hear that, I thought that was fantastic.
Lee Miller with Kathy Lee Gifford (L) and Hoda Kotb on Gifford’s last show
And then, to get the shot with Kathie Lee, Hoda and Jenna at the end was awesome, because I think so many times in TV, there’s bad blood or there’s awkward transitions. This was one of those rare moments where that was not the case. I wanted that image to be in people’s minds. Whether anyone else noticed that, I did not know, but it was what I was shooting for. The rest of it, I just had fun.”
The monumental episode contributed to Miller winning the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Talk, Entertainment News or Morning Show.
In a normal year, he would have gone to an award ceremony in Hollywood to find out. Instead, he was watching a backyard movie in June with his family when it was announced on Twitter. Still, the award is more than just recognition—it’s validation.
“Directing is a creative craft, and [also] it’s like playing a sport—you have days where you walk out, and you go ‘I’m terrible.’ And then you have days where you walk out and think ‘alright, that was good. I dare anyone to do any better than that.’”
There was no way to know then, but in the era of social distancing, Miller has had to get more hands-on than ever. The absence of TODAY’s stage managers on the studio floor meant he had to relay his ideas directly to Hoda and Jenna.“I’ve always known them, and we’ve talked before the show, we’ve talked after the show, [but] I’ve never had the opportunity to talk in their ear during a show, because they never had [earpieces] in,” said Miller. “During COVID, I’ve been able to do that, and it’s fun—it’s like after 5 years, we’re finally getting to know each other better, because I have to help them in that way.”
The pandemic took away the show’s experiments with live audiences, but not the TODAY show’s schedule. With more people at home watching TV than ever before, and a constant cycle of bad news throughout the year, Miller’s role—and the show itself—has taken on added importance.
“You find yourself angry and disappointed, but it’s giving everybody a chance to reimagine the show and look at the content and go ‘that’s really why we do this.’ Our content is positive, they’re positive. [During] the 4 hours of the TODAY show, it’s a break from the news of the day. It’s a chance to laugh and be uplifted.”