Dunham won Saturday for directing the pilot of the show, which focuses on the lives of a group of girls in their 20s.
"It is such an unbelievable honor to be in the company of the people in this room, who have made me want to do this with my life," Dunham said.
Malik Bendjelloul won the documentary award for "Sugar Man," his study of the fate of critically acclaimed but obscure 1970s singer-songwriter Rodriquez. The film also is nominated for best documentary at the Feb. 24 Academy Awards.
Among other early TV winners:
- Musical variety: Glenn Weiss, "The 66th Annual Tony Awards."
- Daytime serial: Jill Mitwell, "One Life to Live."
- Children's program: Paul Hoen, "Let It Shine."
The Directors Guild honors continued Hollywood's strange awards season, which could culminate with a big Oscar win for Ben Affleck's "Argo." The guild's prize for best director typically is a final blessing for the film that goes on to win best-picture and director at the Academy Awards.
Affleck can go only one-for-two at the Oscars, though. He's up for the film honor at the Directors Guild, and "Argo" is looking like the best-picture favorite at the Oscars. But the director's branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked him and several other key filmmakers for an Oscar directing slot.
The guild and Oscar directing lineups usually match up closely, but they have little in common this season, with only Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln" and Ang Lee for "Life of Pi" nominated at both shows.
Along with them and Affleck, the guild nominated Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty" and Tom Hooper for "Les Miserables." At the Oscars, Spielberg and Lee are joined in the directing category by Michael Haneke for "Amour," David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Benh Zeitlin for "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Director Norman Jewison, the guild's 2010 lifetime-achievement prize winner, presented Bigelow with her nomination plaque and noted the incongruity of the Oscar best-picture field, which has nine nominees, while there are only five directing slots.
"So apparently, there were four films that were directed by themselves," Jewison said.
With 12 Oscar nominations, Spielberg's Civil War saga initially looked like the Oscar favorite over such other potential favorites as "Argo," "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty," since films generally have little chance of winning best picture if they are not nominated for best director. Only three films have done it in 84 years, most recently 1989's best-picture champ "Driving Miss Daisy," which failed to earn a directing nomination for Bruce Beresford.
But Affleck's "Argo," in which he also stars as a CIA operative who hatches a bold plan to rescue six Americans during the hostage crisis in Iran, has swept up all the major awards since the Oscar nominations. "Argo" won best drama and director at the Golden Globes and top film honors from the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America.
Many of the same film professionals who vote in guild awards also cast ballots for the Oscars. If Affleck wins at the Directors Guild awards, it will be a strong sign that "Argo" has the inside track for the best-picture Oscar.
Affleck may have a bit of newcomer's edge at the guild, where he's the only first-time nominee. Spielberg has won the guild prize a record three times, for "The Color Purple," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Lee has won twice, for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain," while Bigelow won three years ago for "The Hurt Locker" and Hooper won two years ago for "The King's Speech."
A win for Affleck would nick the guild's record as a strong forecast for the eventual directing recipient at the Oscars. Only six times in the 64-year history of the guild awards has the winner there failed to follow up with an Oscar. It would be No. 7 if Affleck wins Saturday, since he's not up for best director at the Oscars.
Peer loyalty might play in Affleck's favor at the Oscars. The acting branch in particular, the largest block of the academy's 5,900 members, might really throw its weight behind "Argo" because of Affleck's directing snub. Actors love it when one of their own moves into a successful directing career, and Affleck - who's rarely earned raves for his dramatic chops - also delivers one of his best performances in "Argo."
Affleck has had no traction in acting honors this season, and he's joked that no one considered it a snub when he wasn't nominated for best actor. So a best-picture vote for "Argo" might be viewed as making right his omission from the directing lineup and acknowledging what a double-threat talent he's become in front of and behind the camera.
A best-picture prize also would send Affleck home with an Oscar. The award would go to the producers of "Argo": George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Affleck.
But it's not as though Affleck has never gotten his due at Hollywood awards before. He and Matt Damon jump-started their careers with 1997's "Good Will Hunting," for which they shared a screenplay Oscar.
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report.