* "Mad Men," "American Horror Story" lead with 17 nods
* Among comedies, "Modern Family" scores 14 nominations
* HBO leads among networks with 81 nods, CBS has 60
By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES, July 19 (Reuters) - Drama "Downton Abbey" and thriller "American Horror Story" earned the favor of Emmy award voters on Thursday, joining a list of past favorites including "Mad Men" and "Modern Family" among nominees for the top U.S. television honors.
Both "Downton Abbey" and "American Horror Story" benefited from a twist in the nominating process that allowed them to shift categories - "Abbey" to dramas and "Horror Story" to miniseries.
Advertising show "Mad Men," last year's winner for best TV drama, was nominated in 17 categories, as was "Horror Story" to lead the pack of shows, TV movies and miniseries in the hunt for awards when they are given out in September. British drama "Downton Abbey" earned 16 nods.
Joining "Mad Men" and "Downton Abbey" in the best drama category - the top Emmy grouping - are psychological thriller "Homeland," medieval period piece "Game of Thrones" and past favorites "Boardwalk Empire" and "Breaking Bad."
Newcomer "Homeland," set among soldiers returning home from the Iraq War, earned nine nominations, more than any other freshman drama or comedy, including best dramatic actress for Claire Danes and dramatic actor for Damian Lewis.
Howard Gordon, who created the show along with Alex Gansa, credited a combination of "good luck and good choices we made along the way" in terms of cast, crew, writers and stories for the show's success.
But "Homeland" will face stiff competition from "Mad Men," which has won the Emmy the past four years, fan favorite "Game of Thrones," and critical darling "Downton Abbey," which explores class distinctions between an aristocratic British family and its servants in the early 20th century. Despite having competed as a miniseries last year, "Abbey" placed as a drama this year because it returned for a second season.
"We were very conscious of that fact," said executive producer Gareth Neame, "We knew when we spun off a second season, we were moving into some very serious competition."
He credited the show's success to being a classic tale of class in an English country manor coupled with fast, modern storytelling and a cast of characters fans have come to embrace.
Indeed, "Abbey" earned nods for Michelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville among lead actresses and actors, respectively, as well as two nominations for supporting actresses, Maggie Smith and Joanne Froggatt, and two for supporting actors, Brendan Coyle and Jim Carter.
Also in the dramatic acting categories, "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm and last year's winner Steve Buscemi of "Boardwalk Empire" will compete for best lead actor alongside Bryan Cranston for "Breaking Bad" and Michael C. Hall in "Dexter."
Lead actress nominees include "Mad Men" star Elisabeth Moss, as well as veterans Julianna Margulies for "The Good Wife," Kathy Bates in "Harry's Law" and Glenn Close for "Damages."
In the comedy arena, "Modern Family," which like "Mad Men" won best TV show in its genre last year, pulled in 14 nominations including best TV comedy. It will compete in that arena against newcomers "Girls" and "Veep," as well as "The Big Bang Theory," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "30 Rock."
"If you look at the acting categories, both comedy and drama, half of the nominees in the acting categories are first-time nominees, so it really is a changing of the guard and that's very exciting for our business," Bruce Rosenblum, chairman of Emmy organizer the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, told Reuters.
Among the comedies, first-time nominees include Lena Dunham in "Girls," who was nominated for best actress in a TV comedy, alongside another newcomer, Zooey Deschanel in "New Girl." They are joined by Julia Louis-Dreyfus for "Veep," Amy Poehler in "Parks and Recreation," last year's winner Melissa McCarthy for "Mike & Molly" and Edie Falco for "Nurse Jackie."
Nominees for best actor in a comedy included the 2011 winner Jim Parsons for "The Big Bang Theory," along with newcomers Louis C.K. in "Louie" and Don Cheadle with "House of Lies," and veterans Larry David for "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Alec Baldwin in "30 Rock," and Jon Cryer for "Two And a Half Men."
Among snubs cited by some Emmy watchers was the lack of nominations in the drama series category for "Boss" and for its star Kelsey Grammer, as well as the absence of "Parks and Recreation" in the comedy category.
In the TV movie and miniseries arena, "American Horror Story" also appears to have gained by switching categories - in its case from the highly competitive drama grouping to the miniseries arena.
The show follows a family who moves into a haunted house and finds itself dealing with mysterious demons that come with the home's macabre past. It has the rare distinction of being a "hybrid" show because it returns next year but in name only. The story will be new and some cast returns, but in new roles.
The miniseries and TV movie race will be a tight one, too, with "Horror Story" squaring off against historical drama "Hatfields & McCoys," about feuding families in the 19th century. "Hatfields" earned 16 nominations overall, just behind "Horror Story."
Those two were joined by "Hemingway & Gellhorn," "Luther," "Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia" and political TV movie "Game Change," another critical success.
Among networks, cable TV's HBO was again the leading network with 81 overall nominations, followed by CBS with 60, PBS with 58, NBC with 51, ABC with 48 and AMC with 34.
The Emmys will take place on Sept. 23 and be broadcast on the ABC television network.