By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Public television network PBS surprised Hollywood by landing 58 Emmy award nominations on Thursday, the third-highest total among all the nets, thanks to the critically acclaimed drama "Downton Abbey" and a Sherlock Holmes miniseries.
Cable network HBO topped the list for the 12th straight year with 81 nods, including best drama series nominations for "Game of Thrones" and "Boardwalk Empire." CBS came in second and led broadcast channels with 60 programs, including comedy "The Big Bang Theory" and contest "The Amazing Race."
Not far behind was non-profit PBS, best known for historical documentaries, arts programs and "Sesame Street." In recent years it has begun offering more entertainment programming.
Sixteen of the PBS nods went to "Downton Abbey," a British World War I era drama about a cast of countesses, cooks and kitchen maids. Six of its actors, including stars Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery, all earned nods.
The episode of the Sherlock Holmes miniseries that led to the nomination was "A Scandal in Belgravia."
"The big story today is 'Downton Abbey.' It's suddenly poised as the serious rival to 'Mad Men,'" said Tom O'Neil of awards site goldderby.com in a reference to the Emmy favorite from AMC Networks about Madison Avenue in the 1960s.
"Mad Men" had 17 nominations, more than any drama series and last season earned its fourth straight Emmy for best drama.
Emmy nods bring prestige and can boost viewer interest in shows, which for most networks helps attract more advertisers. For pay-cable channels like HBO and Showtime, Emmy recognition can drive higher subscription fees.
PBS, however, is funded by a mix of donations, sponsorships and taxpayer dollars. Republicans in Congress routinely accuse the network of having a liberal bias and threaten to yank public funding. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year was quoted saying, "Big Bird is going to have advertisements."
The network argues it does not push a political point of view and airs quality programming that commercial networks avoid because it does not bring in big profits. "Downton Abbey" fits that category.
"We are absolutely thrilled with today's news," PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said in a statement. In addition to "Downton Abbey," PBS mainstays including "American Masters" and "Great Performances" were nominated, as well as a number of arts programs, Kerger said.
O'Neil of goldderby.com said the Emmy recognition "certainly helps the prestige of PBS" and "strengthens their case against their many attackers."
"Downton Abbey" helped nudge CBS show "The Good Wife" out of the running for best drama, a category that for the first time had no nominees from the major broadcast networks.
"Good Wife" did earn seven nominations including best lead actress for star Julianna Margulies.
Among the other broadcasters, NBC had 51 nominations, ABC came away with 48 and Fox nabbed 26.
The Emmys, the top TV awards in the United States, are given out by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This year's Emmy Awards ceremony will take place on September 23 and be broadcast on Walt Disney Co's ABC television network.
Comcast Corp owns NBC; News Corp owns Fox.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Ciro Scotti)