By Piya Sinha-Roy and Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "House of Cards," a sleek 13-episode political drama released all at once gave Internet-streaming service Netflix its first Emmy nominations on Thursday in a closely watched contest for the future of television entertainment beyond broadcast and cable.
Netflix landed 14 nominations, nine for "House of Cards," its biggest original programming bet so far. It is the first time a program not produced specifically for television won Emmy nominations in the top categories, with "House of Cards" competing for best drama, and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright nominated for best actor and actress.
But as Netflix blazed a path sure to be followed by other digital companies, cable still ruled at the Emmys, particularly Time Warner's HBO, which snagged 108 nominations, its highest number in nine years. The dark thriller "American Horror Story: Asylum" from the FX channel, owned by 21st Century Fox, scored the most nominations of any program.
Thursday's nominations also brought more bad news for the big four broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, which were shut out from the crown jewel category - best drama series - for the second year in a row.
Netflix also garnered nods for the comedy "Arrested Development" and the thriller "Hemlock Grove." Its breakthrough came two decades after the first cable show, on HBO, earned a nomination in one of the best series categories and shook up the world of broadcast TV.
"If you look at the long history of the Emmys, and the incredibly strong contenders that have been recognized this year, it's about quality. We are very honored to be amongst that group," Spacey, who plays the win-at-all-costs Washington politician Francis Underwood in "House of Cards," told Reuters.
Although Netflix has yet to win America's top television award, Emmy voters' embrace was hailed as a turning point in television and an indication of an unrelenting shift toward Internet-delivered entertainment.
Netflix subscribers could download all 13 episodes of the David Fincher-directed "House of Cards" on its first day, changing the water-cooler conversation around television, in which episodes have long been released on a weekly basis.
"Everybody is stepping up their game. It's an opportunity to tell stories on multiple platforms and it's great news for our industry," said Bruce Rosenblum, chairman and chief executive of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Primetime Emmys.
Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, said the nominations were recognition that online television was on equal footing with cable and broadcast TV.
"As of today, the lines are forever blurred between TV and the Internet. It's about what's on the screen," he said.
'RIGHT BETS ON TALENT'
FX's "American Horror Story: Asylum" about abuse and torture in a mental institution run by nuns, pulled in 17 nominations, including best miniseries and best actress for star Jessica Lange. HBO's "Game of Thrones," an epic tale of warring families, landed 16, including best drama.
Last year's big winner, post 9/11 psychological thriller "Homeland" from Showtime, was nominated in 11 categories, including best drama, and best actor and actress for Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, who both took home the awards last year.
In comedy, where traditional broadcast is strongest, NBC's "30 Rock" anchored the most nominations with 13, including best comedy for the long-running series' final season. Creator and star Tina Fey and co-star Alec Baldwin picked up nominations in leading comedy actor categories. Last year's big winner, ABC's "Modern Family," scored 12 nods, including best comedy series.
HBO's "Girls," about 20-somethings finding their way in New York, was also nominated for best comedy series, gaining five nods overall, including best actress in a comedy for creator Lena Dunham.
The HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra," based on the life of pianist Liberace, pulled in 15 nominations, and Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover will compete in the lead actor in a miniseries or movie category.
"It's all about making the right bets on talent," Michael Lombardo, president of HBO programming, said of the network's large nomination count. "I wish there were a secret sauce. It's about making the right bets to do business with the right people."
AMC drama "Mad Men," an Emmy stalwart, picked up 12 nominations, including best drama series. Jon Hamm earned a nod for best actor in a drama for his portrayal of advertising man Don Draper, and Elisabeth Moss was nominated for best actress in a drama as Draper's protégé Peggy Olson. It was Hamm's 10th Emmy nomination, including six straight for his "Mad Men" role, but he has yet to win.
British period drama "Downton Abbey," which airs on U.S. public broadcaster PBS, also earned a dozen nominations and will go head-to-head against "Mad Men" for best drama series, best actor (Hugh Bonneville) and best actress (Michelle Dockery).
"I think it's tremendously exciting when you make a show in the culture of one country and it's been a hit all over the world," creator Julian Fellowes said of the series, which is set in early 20th century aristocratic Britain.
"It means somehow you've touched universal values and interest," he added.
Another top Emmy contender for best drama series will be AMC's "Breaking Bad," a quirky drama about a high school chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston who turns to a life of making drugs after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It had 13 nominations, including best actor in a drama for Cranston, who has won three Emmys for the role.
This year's Emmy Awards will take place on September 22 and will be broadcast on CBS. Actor Neil Patrick Harris hosts.
(Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Peter Cooney)