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Will Mad Men be knocked off Emmys throne?
Mad Men. Picture: Supplied.

Cult retro series Mad Men and comedy hit Modern Family are Emmys favourites again this weekend - but a bunch of newcomers could yet produce surprises at US television's annual awards show.

Mad Men, which has broken records by winning Best Drama every year since its 2007 premier, is vying for the biggest prize once more, along with a brace of others from its 17 nominations at Sunday's Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony.

The beautifully stylised show, about life and love in a 1960s New York advertising agency, is up against Boardwalk Empire, British-made Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Homeland for the top gong.

With 11 nominations, the big-budget epic series Game of Thrones will hope to follow up on its success at last weekend's Creative Arts Emmys - the technical trophies - where the fantasy drama swept the board.

Thriller Homeland, starring Claire Danes as a CIA agent probing a US Marine suspected of planning a terrorist attack, is only in its first season but has earned rave reviews and nine Emmy nominations for pay channel Showtime.

On the lighter side, mockumentary-style Modern Family is hoping to win its third straight Best Comedy series Emmy with a cast of gay, step-sibling and generally non-orthodox nuclear family characters.

But it faces stiff competition from The Big Bang Theory, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and newcomers Girls and Veep.

The dramedy Girls, which only launched in April, follows the lives of a quartet of 20-something New Yorkers - markedly different from the more upmarket Sex and the City foursome.

It has been a huge hit with viewers and critics alike, and could produce an upset Sunday night.

The long list of Mad Men nominees included Jon Hamm for best actor, Elisabeth Moss for best actress, Jared Harris for best supporting actor and Christina Hendricks for best supporting actress.

Overall, Mad Men collected 17 nominations, one more than Downton Abbey, which last year won in the miniseries category.

Up for best miniseries or TV movie are American Horror Story, Game Change, Hatfields & McCoys, Hemingway & Gellhorn (starring Nicole Kidman), Luther and Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia.

American Horror Story racked up 17 nominations in all, including best actress (Connie Britton), another for best supporting actor (Denis O'Hare), and two for best supporting actress (Frances Conroy and Jessica Lange).

In the race for best competition reality show are The Amazing Race, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, Top Chef and The Voice.

Trailing with just three minor nominations was the high school musical series Glee, two years after it racked up 19 nominations.

Missing from the nominees' lists, unveiled in July, was American Idol, a pillar of the US music industry after 11 seasons, but now at a crossroads after the sudden departure of judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.

Its host Ryan Seacrest is nevertheless among the nominees for best host of a reality program - as is Betty White, still going strong at 90, for Betty White's Off Their Rockers.

Sunday's awards show will be hosted by late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.